An Interview About Nothing: Philly's Best Shoegaze Band is Here to Knock You Over
"Kevin Shields is a fucking maniac."
Philadelphia’s Nothing might sound like a shoegaze band, but with roots in hardcore and punk they’re different from the usual group of guys who were just so into Loveless. Thanks to his mom and brother, band leader Dominic “Nicky” Palermo grew up listening to bands like Slowdive, Cocteau Twins and the Cure. But as a musician, he first cut his teeth playing in Philly hardcore acts. In the early 2000s, Palermo fronted the dark and desolate Horror Show, which released an album and a couple of EPs on Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish Inc. label.
Horror Show was short-lived, due to the fact that Palermo was convicted of aggravated assault and attempted murder for stabbing a man during an altercation. The time in jail changed him. Upon release, he took a hiatus from music, only to come back and form the basis for what Nothing would become.
Thanks to fellow guitarist Brandon Setta, Palermo was able to develop some demos and fully achieve the atmospheric and textured sound he envisioned. A 12” called Suns and Lovers was released on Japan’s Big Love Records, followed by the Downward Years to Come EP on A389 Recordings. Relapse, typically home to metal acts like Mastodon, the Dillinger Escape Plan and Pig Destroyer, took on Nothing and made them one of the few non-metal artists on the roster. Despite the lack of metal, Nothing’s debut album Guilty of Everything, which is out on March 4, is still very heavy, intensifying the shoegaze sound by melding Slowdive’s angelic melodies, Hum’s thunderous amp-shaking riffage, and Swervedriver’s ear-bleeding volume. It’s the most complete, satisfying, and original-sounding shoegaze album since the scene that celebrated itself burnt out.
Noisey sat down with Palermo and Setta after the band played a gig during a severe ice storm in Toronto to discuss how jail helped form Guilty of Everything, the return of Slowdive and how playing loud can work wonders for masking a shitty performance.
Noisey: Now having seen you live, I can honestly say you’re one of the loudest bands I’ve ever seen. Why do you crank the volume to that degree?
Dominic Palmero: The main thing is that it’s our way of staying a punk rock band. It doesn’t ever sound right when the volume isn’t loud. We get into arguments with sound guys all the time over this shit. They say they can’t hear the vocals or it’s a decibel violation.
What decibel do you play at?
Between 120 and 130. We try to, anyway. We get knocked down sometimes. I think we hit 130 in Florida once and it was pretty crazy.
One of my favourite stories about My Bloody Valentine is a quote by Kevin Shields where he said, "Once you get above 100 db, a physical change is caused in people. Endorphins get released into the system because the body can sense imminent danger."
Kevin Shields is a fucking maniac.
Yeah, but I saw MBV a few months ago and…
They weren’t very loud, right?
Well, aside from the “holocaust section” in “You Made Me Realise,” not really.
I saw them in New York at Roseland in 2008 and they were so fucking loud. We don’t give it much thought though. You can’t hear the vocals, so we’re just going to turn it up as loud as we can.
Does it affect how you play the songs?
Dominic: Sometimes I can only hear Brandon's parts and it makes me want to fall over.
Brandon Setta: I think it affects the sound because you can mix in whatever and start to hear weird shit that’s not there. We use a lot of effects pedals, so there can be some crazy soundscapes.
It also masks when you fuck up.
Dominic: That’s really good for me because that’s all I do is make mistakes… forever.
How did you hook up with a metal label like Relapse?
Brandon: We recorded our EP with our friend, Jeff. He’s friends with some guys at Relapse, who were fans of our stuff.
Is the thinking that adding Nothing to the Relapse roster is expanding the scope of the label?
Dominic: They’ve never really given us any reasoning behind it, but they fully back the record. We’d be fucking idiots not to take them up on it. Several people on the label contacted us telling us their favorite song, mentioning lyrics, asking about it. You can tell that they actually tried to decipher the record, and that they really like it. Nowadays, anybody who can get behind the hard work you’ve put into making something, you’d be a fucking retard not to get behind them. There are so many fucking frauds and phonies and terrible labels that do well… but we come from punk and hardcore, so we’re used to those kinds of labels that actually care about their releases. Like, I did a couple of records with Deathwish, and A389 put out our EP. These are dudes who started their labels in their basement, not some rich kid that had an insane amount of money to fucking blow. They cared about the music, which is cool.
Guilty of Everything is still a pretty heavy record. I read that you spent some time in jail a while back.Did that experience play out in your lyrics?
Dominic: The record originally was like… yeah, I spent a bit of time in prison and never really mentioned it in my writing with the music. And I had a lot of stuff written down. I always said if I make an LP I would use it. I wrote some of it in prison, some lines. I was 21 years old, so a lot of it was fucking bullshit. So I pulled stuff from that and put it into some of the songs. The whole concept of the record for me was, not a confession, but surrendering in a hole. The whole human race is just so fucked up, and every one of us is, for lack of a better term, a piece of shit. Everybody is across the fucking board. No one can really admit to it. The record rolls along the human condition, but acts like a confession for me, telling what I was feeling at this certain time.
I noticed you guys were tweeting about Slowdive, a band whose influence I can hear in Nothing. I take it you’re excited that they’re reuniting?
Dominic: I’ve been listening to Slowdive since I was fucking 18 years old. When I was playing in hardcore bands, I always wanted to be playing music like Slowdive but didn’t really know how to. It’s cool. Neil Halstead’s kind of a prick, but… he’s got his head up his ass. I try not to pay attention to him as a person because I also love Mojave 3. But he’s kind of a fucking cunt.
I read that your mom was a 4AD fan. That’s pretty cool to be learning about music from a label like that when you’re growing up.
Dominic: At the time, growing up and listening to that stuff, I was terrified. I grew up in a single parent home and my brother and my sister were out of the house. We kind of lived in a shitty neighbourhood, so I was shook and I think my mom was also shook. I would just sleep in her room all the time, and she would always listen to college radio and Cocteau Twins records, Siouxsie, all that stuff. And that used to scare the hell out of me because they had some creepy songs. Even the Cure, like Pornography, would terrify me. But I wound up knowing the songs and learning them. But it’s really weird music for a seven-year-old to like. My brother, though, was feeding me punk rock and hardcore, so I got a little bit of everything.
My mom was into Neil Diamond.
Dominic: Well, my dad was a fucking junkie and he was into funk. He thought he was a black guy, pretty much. He worked in a labor union with all black men, so he’d get all dressed up in these suits and go out with him. He listened to the Delfonics and that kind of stuff. But he was a dick, so…
How did you go from playing in Horror Show to Nothing?
Dominic: I didn’t want to play any music for a while there. But I didn’t know what else to do with my life, what would make me want to wake up every day. I really struggled with that for like four years and, not to sound dramatic or anything, but I thought about blowing my brains out every day. I moved to L.A. for a while and that was worse. So I moved back home and lived in a shack and was at my end. So I just decided to record some music and see what happened. And then it was what it was.
Do you consider your punk years behind you?
Dominic: No. Not at all. I don’t ever want to lose that. Death of Lovers [post-punk side-project on Deathwish Inc.] for me was more about making an abrasive, trying beautiful sound, but uglier. Nothing I wanted to be a really beautiful, yet sad and heavy sound. Death of Lovers is more like that post-punk track, so it’s a good outlet.
Would you say it’s an easier on your voice now that you don’t have to scream?
Dominic: No, I’m a terrible singer. It took a lot of work and I’m still not there yet. I just keep playing shows though.
Cam Lindsay’s ears are still ringing, weeks after seeing Nothing. It’s probably serious. He’s on Twitter - @yasdnilmac