WORDS: GEORGIA RAWSON
Given that the last ten months have been nothing short of a chaotic blend of post futuristic outcomes in a western society deemed suitable as a narrative to a George Orwell novel, to have one of Philadelphia’s most experimental post rock bands release an eerily cinematic record that encompasses every aspect of the human spectrum in a sonically entrancing soundscape seems almost, well just too well timed.
But as the phone picks up, Nothing vocalist Domenic ‘Nicky’ Palermo seems pretty relaxed as he fixes himself an early gin cocktail. As he charmingly explains his new found passion for mixology an image flashes of the tongue in cheek irony that you find in the cliff hanger scenes at the end of post-apocalyptic TV series, the unlikely lead character looking out of the shattered apartment windows at the destruction surrounding him whilst sipping on a well earned drink, muttering to himself that we all knew it was coming.
Fortunately for both ourselves and Nicky the world isn’t in a sea of rubble just yet, but outside of a TV screen that level of realism, and with it the dry humour is still there.
“I don’t think people have gotten more positive with what is going on in the world, but I think everyone has dialled it down a bit and gotten into the back seat with me.” He muses. As he calls through from his New York apartment, ‘the only place he’s ever allowed himself to move’, the conversation very quickly turns to the surroundings that profoundly influenced the band’s forthcoming record, The Great Dismal. If you were to visit Philadelphia, both Nothing and Nicky’s hometown, you would see tall white buildings, iron statues, liberty bells, and what seems like Disneyesque constructed streets to resemble a small city of ‘American Freedom’. But beneath the whitewash there is a city that is now rising up against the systematic racism and prejudice its minority communities have faced, and its upon this backdrop that the darker experiences of Nicky’s upbringing have surfaced, and thus become the surroundings to influence The Great Dismal.
“IT WAS A CHALLENGE TO VENTURE OUT INTO A WORLD I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND, A WORLD THAT DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHO I WAS…”
“I’ll always wear Philadelphia on my sleeve.” Nicky tells us bluntly. “Everything I do with this project has been revolved around that city. The way that my life’s trajectory went it was always important to me. As I manoeuvred through the years this city changed a lot, but I’m a nostalgic person and I always carry it with me through whatever it is I’m doing.”
The narrative of Nicky’s life is one that many would deem worthy of a biopic for the level of death, scandal, jail time, brain damage brought on by assault, and other series of unfortunate events that seem to have followed the band. But rather than build a sense of constant darkness around the band, a self-depressed state that burdens lack of imagination, it has done rather the opposite. Their recent body of work, 2018’s Dance On The Blacktop became critically acclaimed, but even with a chance to pen an open letter to his turbulent feelings, for Nicky it felt incomplete.
“When I started this project all I thought I had to do was make this type of music, but you know it was a challenge to now venture out into a world I didn’t understand, or a world that didn’t understand who I was, and where I’ve been in the world is very different to what I’m accustomed to.” He reflects thoughtfully.
The above narrative, often heavily exploited by the media and clickbait title links, closed in walls around the band’s music. “For a long time, I was kind of labelled as ‘bro-shoegaze’, and it was pretty sad that people wanted to throw a label on me. No one knows what I came from, or the shit I dealt with growing up, so it’s easy just to throw a tag on me just because I have a little bit of a different story. As it progressed people began to understand a lot more, especially in today’s climate.”
“IT WASN’T THE SOUND OF SELF-DOUBT AND THAT UNCERTAINTY I FELT IN THE WORLD AND IN MYSELF, IT WAS JUST SORT OF HEALING…”
But a decade on from the events that Nicky felt ‘defined’ his life, he found new ways to therapeutically rip open his wounds, that moment being he stepped foot into the studio for the recording of The Great Dismal. The demoing period of the record had lasted well over three years, the anxieties poured into it being diminished once in the studio.
“I had this time to work on it, and I felt like odds were stacked against me. There was a lot of self-doubt and so I wanted to be perfectly accurate on what I wanted to achieve. When we got to the studio, I suddenly realised that all these details, these tiny details I had become so anxious about, created this sound. It wasn’t the sound of self-doubt, and that uncertainty I felt in the world and in myself, it was just sort of healing.”
The result is a cinematic soundscape that delves into the underbelly of not just the new wave of American post-shoegaze, but also the current state of humanity. Having drafted in his close friend and author, Chelsea Wolf to describe the album as a record that, ‘explores existentialist themes of isolation, extinction and human behaviour in the face of 2020’s vast wasteland’, the record has given Nicky a new perspective, but still allows him to find a balance with his outlook on the world.
“It’s amazing to see what’s happening in the USA, and as many bad things are happening there’s this greater force which is fighting back with this unity. This is the kind of things I would not have thought about in the past because of the way I see human beings in general. Dare I say it it’s been uplifting; it makes me want to stand hand in hand with the people standing up.”
For a brief moment we discuss one of the great wonders of the punk and hardcore community. With Nicky and his other band mates firmly having their roots in this community, the support system of misfits and the comradery has allowed Nothing to prosper. “I think this music speaks volumes about it’s listeners because of what that kind of music can represent.” He tells us in a matter of fact manner. The idea of acceptance is at the very centre of the ethos that makes up punk as not just a genre, but an underground movement. Because of this it becomes a place to thrive. Given the last twelve months, it’s also been a genre in which unity has been upheld more than ever before, the loss of some poignant figures revealing to those outside of it’s club shows, independent labels, and community is one where a constant communal support system doesn’t just allow it’s participants to prosper, but to also start over.
“i try to see all the little beautiful things that you cannot always see in a life that is made of pain…”
“I had these tapes made that had early Nothing demos on them, and within minutes of putting them out at This Is Hardcore I’d sold hundred of them. That to me was a really clear moment of acceptance.” Reflects Nicky when looking back on the foundations of Nothing. “I remember Justice (Tripp, Angel Du$t, Trapped Under Ice) coming up to me and grabbing a tape, but not just because of the music. He was asking me how I was and he was glad to see that I was doing well. I don’t really think you’ll find that sort of thing anywhere else.”
Throughout The Great Dismal there is an profound sound of suffering, echoes of isolation, which Nicky mentions the current state of the world to be ‘comparable’, and ‘all too similar’ to that of prison. But it is also a record with a deeper reflection, the obscure beauty that we’re also experiencing in ‘a world turning too fast.’
“I’d like to say that I’m not being more positive I’m just being more realistic. I’ve always tried to see some kind of humanity as well though. I try to see all the little beautiful things that you cannot always see in a life that is made of pain. It’s pain from the beginning with birth, and then you’re out in this loud and overbearingly bright world,” contemplates Nicky. “As I get older and more comfortable with stuff, I open my eyes to more. I hung out with Aaron (Heard, bassist) and his baby and we went to the zoo and such, and just seeing that bond, something so touching, it’s something I just can’t express.”
The Great Dismal is not just a sonically pleasing record to be played during the currently locked down state of the world, an unintentional time stamp of the current era we’re living in, and an unsettling comparison to the isolation in the criminal detainment system to the world we’re a part of now. As Nicky concludes our interview in a calm and light-hearted manner, it’s brought about a sense of peace, one that he has been longing to find for almost a decade. “When the sun explodes, and everything is just dismantled, and everything we know goes I’ll not look back on it as a disappointment.” He smiles. “I’ll look back and think wow what a ride it’s been.”
The Great Dismal is out 30th October via Relapse Records. You can Pre Order our ALBUM OF THE YEAR here.