Upward Years Are Here: Inside Nothing’s Multi-Generational Shoegaze Fest Slide Away

Cam Smith

Upward Years Are Here: Inside Nothing’s Multi-Generational Shoegaze Fest Slide Away

Cam Smith

“I’m really happy right now,” Domenic Palermo says, his voice quivering with joy. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing for once, and that’s not a normal thing for me.”

It’s just after 3PM on Saturday, March 9, and the Nothing frontman is sitting backstage at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, a venue the 43-year-old has been seeing shows at since he was 16. In less than an hour, Arizona shoegaze breakouts Glixen will take the stage, and Palermo’s creation, the first-ever Slide Away Festival, will commence. It’s an eight-band bill of shoegaze acts that encompasses every crevice of the genre in its current, stronger-than-ever form, and people traveled from all over the world to attend.

Along with Glixen, Philly’s own They Are Gutting A Body Of Water and Knifeplay are here to represent the genre’s new guard; Swirlies, Lovesliescrushing, and Astrobrite — three pioneers of American shoegaze — are playing rare sets; trip-gaze aficionados Mint Field flew all the way from Mexico to perform; and Nothing are capping the whole thing off with a full-album play-through of their landmark 2014 debut Guilty Of Everything — an anniversary set Palermo swore he’d “never do.” Yet here we are.

Palermo dreamed up the idea for Slide Away and made it all happen with a skeleton crew; himself, his manager, and his booking agent. Tickets were $40 — an unheard-of deal for an event of this scale in 2024 — and all 1,250 sold out in less than eight hours. Palermo didn’t expect that kind of response, and while the fest’s logistical challenges intrigued him, he says the only thing that could make it cooler was if the pressures of a career-milestone set weren’t weighing on him all night.

“It always gets emotional here,” he says. “Been through a lot in this city, and I feel like people feel that, so it’s a communal experience.”

Backstage, he’s hustling from room to room, playing both producer and man of the hour. When he finally gets a moment to step into the green room with Stereogum, he’s dressed in ratty sweatpants and a well-worn t-shirt speckled with holes. His black hair is graying on the sides, and big tufts are puffing out from under his ballcap. He says that preparing for this show has been “an emotional fucking ride”: the bucket-list lineup, the hometown location, the special album he’s revisiting, and the many former members of Nothing who’ll be rejoining him onstage later in the night.

“It’s so weird being in a room with all these people that I’ve dealt with for 12 years, that either quit because I was crazy or I had to kick out of the band,” he says, cracking a smile. “I feel like it’s an intervention or something.”

Palermo’s a Philly native son. He grew up in the working-class Irish neighborhood of Kensington about 20 minutes Northeast of Union Transfer (that’s UT to the locals), and he spent nearly four decades of his life here, save for his recent move to New York, a voluntary stint in L.A., and an involuntary one in Camden, NJ, where he served a two-year prison sentence in the early 2000s. He used to bartend for the company that owns Union Transfer, and says the people at this venue are “like family.” One of them was crying on his shoulder before the doors even opened, already overcome with pride for what this festival represents. Palermo’s actual family will be here, too, including his near-80-year-old mother, who I catch shuffling through the crowd of youths later in the night.

“Philadelphia is a town of transplants at this point,” Palermo tells me in between swigs of Guinness. “There’s not many people who say they’re from Philly who are actually from Philadelphia. I’m one of the only ones that’s left.”

When Palermo talks about Philly, his speech slows a half-step and his eyes connect with mine. I can see the psychic toll the city has placed on him in his pupils. In his current emotional state, the mere mention of his hometown appears to get him choked-up. “This city embodies everything in my persona,” he says, glancing down at his full sleeves of tattoos. “It’s built me into the person that I am now.”

That person is the singer, guitarist, songwriter, and only original member of Nothing, the punk-inflected shoegaze band Palermo formed in 2010. Since then, he and his rotating cast of bandmates have released four full-lengths and over a half-dozen EPs, and they’ve spent the last decade touring their asses off. The entire Nothing project — their discography, their raucous live shows, Palermo’s no-bullshit attitude, and his aptitude for DIY punk cooperation — have played a huge part in awakening shoegaze from its backward-glancing coma.

In the 2000s, the genre was limping along as a shell of its early-’90s self. Most of the active bands were operating on a strictly subterranean level, and Palermo remembers seeing pioneers like Slowdive play to a scant 200 people. Much has changed. On the same day as Slide Away, Slowdive played to 2,000 fans in Seoul, Korea, and that’s just business as usual these days for the UK ‘gazers, who’re now in the throes of an unfounded career resurgence. You might’ve heard that shoegaze is bigger than ever now thanks to TikTok, or that the American scene is buzzing with many of the best shoegaze bands since My Bloody Valentine. That’s all true, and none of it would’ve happened without Nothing’s body of work — Guilty Of Everything in particular.

Released via the extreme-metal label Relapse Records, the album marked a seismic shift for shoegaze both tonally and musically. It’s punkier and less caustic than Deafheaven’s Sunbather, sexier and more stylish than Hum’s You’d Prefer An Astronaut, and 10 times more miserablist than Slowdive’s Souvlaki — yet as epic, pounding, and emotionally affecting as all three combined. Moreover, Palermo’s existentially wounded lyrics add a gritty personal dimension to a genre of music that had generally been defined by its impersonality (the lyrics for MBV’s Loveless are famously inscrutable, and Lovesliescrushing’s bloweyeyelashwish even moreso). Palermo put everything he had into Guilty Of Everything, and you can feel it in the album’s gale-force performances and in the singer’s aching words about surviving the ruthless maw of poverty and prison.

“That record is everything to me,” Palermo says. “And it’s always been my favorite Nothing release because I hold it so close to my heart.”

The album’s brooding, crashing sound resonated with a whole new generation of shoegaze fans, who began breathing fresh life into a genre that had long been stuck daydreaming about the UK scene circa 1990. It also put Philly, a city that had never had any real association with shoegaze, on the international map. Around the same time, other Philly bands like Spirit Of The Beehive and Blue Smiley began their own shoegaze mutations in the city’s DIY scene, which parlayed into groups like They Are Gutting A Body Of Water (TAGABOW), Knifeplay, Full Body 2, and countless other innovators taking the “Philly shoegaze” mantle in the 2020s.

All of this momentum — both in Philly proper and in the way the scene’s sound is reverberating globally — has been building toward something like Slide Away. Palermo wanted to ensure it was done right, free of corporate interlopers and culture-vulturing vibe-killers. The focus is all on the bands, and the atmosphere of the fest — from the crowd’s overwhelmingly polite behavior to every band’s palpable gratitude to be included — strikes the perfect balance between reverence and revelry. I can tell that most everyone in the audience not only adores shoegaze, but is fully onboard in appreciating the genre’s current moment. The way Slide Away captures that singularity isn’t lost on people.

“I feel like it’s an epochal moment in shoegaze,” Eoin Masterson says of the fest. The man behind the internet radio station Ignoreradio Shoegaze traveled all the way from Ireland to be at Slide Away, describing the pull to come as being “drawn here,” in the spiritual sense, by how the lineup connects together the last three decades of shoegaze history — and in the city that Masterson considers to be shoegaze’s present-day capital. “I think Philadelphia is the world center of shoegaze right now,” Masterson enthuses. And this is coming from a guy who hails from My Bloody Valentine’s home city of Dublin, i.e. shoegaze ground zero.

Masterson says he spoke with another attendee who traveled from Barcelona, and at one point I chat with a guy who made the trek from San Francisco — despite the much closer Slide Away in LA going down later this month (albeit with a less prestigious lineup). This particular bill was just too good to pass up on, and to Masterson’s point, it feels like more than just a concert, but a watershed moment for the genre. TAGABOW, Knifeplay, and Glixen are each crucial contributors to the ongoing American shoegaze renaissance. They’re carrying the torch that was initially lit in the early ’90s by Swirlies and Lovesliescrushing, and later sustained by Astrobrite and Nothing. That’s 30 years of the American shoegaze lineage all being celebrated under one roof, which is something that’s never been done before. That intergenerational linking is exactly what Palermo had in mind.

“When we started doing [Nothing] in 2010 it was very cold,” Palermo says of the shoegaze landscape. “If I ever reached out to any of the people that I was looking up to to try to play music, I never really got a lot of responses or any kind of guidance.”

Now that Nothing are in the elder statesman role, Palermo wants to be a nurturing force to keep this thing animated and pure in a way it wasn’t when he was starting out. “I’ve never wanted it to be [cold] like that for the younger bands,” he says. “I want to be there and help build more of a communal kind of thing. And the festival seemed like a way to do it.”

Palermo says his initial idea for Slide Away was to line the whole perimeter of the room with amps to make it a “massacre” of sound. However, after his booking agent convinced him “it doesn’t need to hurt” concertgoer’s ears, the production was scaled back to more tolerable levels (he was still able to get venue’s decibel limit raised a few notches). That doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring. When I step out into the crowd during Glixen’s first song, I’m taken aback by the gorgeous videography on the screen behind them. Oceanic blues and lusty reds are swirled into a hypnagogic landscape of moving shapes and figures, and they only get more alluring throughout the night. Particularly during Lovesliescrushing and Nothing’s sets, the projectionist uses real-time footage of the bands and actively inverts the colors and angles, making it feel more like an ever-unfolding music video than a mere screensaver. For a genre as heavy-eyed as shoegaze, having something stimulating to look at makes a big difference — especially with eight bands’ worth of shoegaze in a row.

Even so, the bands’ music is of course the main attraction. Glixen are the noobies of the bill with just an EP and some singles to their name, but their MBV-ish quilts of sound are already dialed the fuck in. Their glide-guitar riffs are stylish, their breathy hooks are rosy, and their overall sound is so rich and voluminous. Astrobrite are next, and while they’re setting up I hear a group of college-age guys next to me geeking out about Scott Cortez, the band’s singer-guitarist who’ll be taking the stage again tonight with Lovesliescrushing (Masterson unflinchingly dubs Cortez the American Kevin Shields). Astrobrite’s prolific catalog stretches back to the mid-’90s, but their early 2000s albums, particularly Crush and Pinkshinyultrablast (yep, that’s where the Russian ‘gazers got their namesake), are especially influential on lo-fi shoegaze of the Bandcamp era. Glixen’s set might have been louder and more arresting, but seeing Astrobrite was a special moment for the heads. I spy Palermo fist-pumping side-stage with a huge smile, and the band’s merch booth is mobbed by twentysomethings as soon as Cortez unslings his guitar.

In between bands, the event feels like a regular, albeit lengthy, concert. Interstitial DJ sets from Full Body 2, Vyva Melinkolya, and Kip Berman (of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart fame) keep the mood ‘gazey without overdoing it, sneaking in breakcore and dream-pop for a fresh ear-cleanse. Fans mill about near the merch or at the bar, and navigating the crowd is surprisingly easy for a sold-out show. There are no sponsor booths, and most of the bands are running their own merch themselves, making it easy for fans to have casual interactions with their heroes. The age range is genuinely diverse as hell. There’re plenty of people in their forties and fifties, but the average age (at least on the floor where I am) is the full spectrum of teens and twentysomethings.

I slink through the crowd to get a good vantage point for Knifeplay, whose six-person lineup promises a level of loudness that I suspect will trump the three and four-piece bands who played before them. Or so I thought. Knifeplay’s set consists of three new songs, two of which they’ve never played live before. Each one is roughly nine minutes long, and they all center the gut-punching belts of new co-vocalist Johanna Baumann, who joined the lineup after Knifeplay’s soggy 2022 knockout, Animal Drowning. The new tunes all feature glacial crescendos with a slowcore twang, and the band opt for hollow-body and acoustic guitars instead of the standard-issue shoegaze Jazzmasters. When Baumann and frontman T.J. Strohmer hook the lyric,”take the light away” during the closing track, they let it wriggle on the line for a few minutes before reeling it in for a what feels like a momentous shoegaze climax. Fooled again. Baumann pulls out a tambourine, Strohmer turns toward the drummer to maintain the delicate nod, and the expected distortion never clicks on. It’s a bold and clever inversion of the shoegaze formula, cheekily pulled off in the heart of shoegaze mecca.

Mint Field’s slinky, trip-hoppy shoegaze brings the loudness back, and the Mexico City trio receive huge applause when they announce how far they journeyed to make it. It’s only 7PM at this point, and it’s clear that a significant portion of the ticket-holders are holding out for the bigger bands. TAGABOW are one of them. By the time they take the stage, the room is noticeably more packed, and the vibe of the audience is more anticipatory than curious. Speaking with me backstage before the show, singer-guitarist Doug Dulgarian makes it very clear that he doesn’t want to be a poster child for Philly shoegaze’s current scene, which is a role he’s often assigned by others who recognize his impact on the culture.

Between the Julia’s War label he co-runs (who’ve put on Wednesday, Feeble Little Horse, Glixen, and dozens of other next-gen shoegaze acts from Philly and elsewhere) and TAGABOW’s already-influential sound, they’re easily one of the city’s most important shoegaze bands, and their set at Slide Away feels like a testament to what they’ve helped build thus far.

“Did I ever think that I would play Union Transfer?” Dulgarian asks himself in the green room. “I wished for it, but now that it’s all happening…I feel grateful.”

Clearly, TAGABOW have earned it. Just like they do in the 200-cap rooms they’re now selling out, Dulgarian and his bandmates configure themselves into a summoning circle on the UT stage, and the singer communicates with the crowd almost exclusively through air-horn honks. The kids are eating up their cryptically confrontational energy, and five songs into their set, the battalion of swaying head-nods snowballs into a full-on mosh pit. Some of the older folks around me gawk into the scrum of young’ins with visible disdain, which strikes me as ironic. Nothing are the evening’s main event, and there’s an argument to be made that the hardcore energy they injected into shoegaze during the Guilty Of Everything years is directly responsible for the TAGABOW mosh rascals of today.

The vibes for Lovesliescrushing’s set couldn’t have been any different. The duo of guitarist Cortez and vocalist Melissa Arpin Duimstra have only played live about 10 times over the last 30 years, but their mystical 1992 album, bloweyelashwish, and 1996 follow-up, xuvetyn, are certified cult-classics of ambient-gaze. I catch Cortez backstage and pull him into the green room for a few questions. He confirms that Slide Away is the biggest Lovesliescrushing show in the band’s history, and tells me, with genuine gratitude in his eyes, “I’m just shocked that I’m playing it.”

Palermo is, too. “I had a Lovesliescrushing tape when I was locked up,” the Nothing singer says. “I’m probably the only dude ever who was listening to that kind of stuff in a prison.” Getting the band on this bill was a fantasy for Palermo, and he cold-pitched Cortez using an email that he pulled off a Bandcamp page. After a few days, Cortez responded and humbly asked if Astrobrite could play, too. “I was like, are you fucking kidding me? Yeah,” Palermo tells me, laughing in disbelief. Amazingly, Cortez says that when he first saw Palermo’s Slide Away email hit his inbox, he literally thought someone was pulling a joke on him.

“I was like, ‘That dude’s really cool, why would he be asking me to play some awesome-sounding fest?'”

True to the genre’s coy demeanor, none of these bands think they’re cool enough to be in each other’s presences. Glixen’s singer sounded like she was on the verge of tears when she told the room, “I can’t believe I’m on this stage right now,” toward the end of their set. Dulgarian told me he’s grateful “that [Palermo] even thought that we were cool enough” to be on the lineup. In the same green room just a few minutes earlier, Palermo said without a drop of bullshit that he thinks TAGABOW and Knifeplay are “a million years better than Nothing.” The scene really do be celebrating itself.

Mutual respect permeates the whole fest, but the mood is exceedingly appreciative for Lovesliescrushing. Without any drums or sand-blasted guitar fuzz, they’re the softest, most docile band on the bill, but everyone around me appears transfixed. Their sound is like the aural equivalent of an open refrigerator door glowing into a dark kitchen; shadowy, comfortingly icy, and never rising above an ambient purr. Cortez’s streaky guitar warbles are drenched in so much delay and reverb that they’re unrecognizable as a string instrument, and Arpin Duimstra’s wordless intonations travel through her table of pedal board circuitry and emerge from the monitors sounding like a chorus of schoolyard ghosts. Neither of them addressed the crowd with words, but at the set’s conclusion, they just looked up and smiled nervously, visibly stunned by the warmth of applause.

A Lovesliescrushing show is an event in and of itself, but to be followed onstage by Swirlies made me think of the Uncut Gems scene where Adam Sandler gushes, “That’s history right there.” The Boston band were one of the few American groups who found success playing shoegaze in the early ’90s, and while they’ve always maintained a respected pedigree in this scene, there’s a whole new generation of ‘gazers discovering them through the internet and taking ownership of their fandom. For Palermo, successfully getting Swirlies on this bill — and for Nothing to be headlining over them — is a surreal full-circle moment. Swirlies’ frontman-guitarist Damon Tutunjian caught one of Nothing’s chaotic early shows back in 2011, and the elder musician was immediately supportive of the band’s aggro vibe. It means as much to him now as it did then.

“Swirlies are one of the most important bands of all time to me,” Palermo says. “I’ve been trying to rip off Damon’s stuff since the beginning of Nothing.”

Clearly, their influence isn’t lost on the kids, either, who rip open a mosh pit as soon as the band kick into the rattling Blonder Tongue Audio Baton classic “Vigilant Always.” Swirlies’ knotty sound and their effortlessly cool vibe places them closer to Sonic Youth-ian noise-rock than any other band on Slide Away, and their sampler-laced squalls set the room ablaze. At some point, a twentysomething climbs up and crowdsurfs during one of their songs, which puts a smile on Tutunjian’s face that reads, “What the fuck is happening?” “Careful,” he quips after the track cuts.

By the time Swirlies start packing up their instruments, it’s after 11PM. The only real food in the venue (soft pretzels) is long-gone, Swirlies’ merch is dwindling, and as I pace around the floor to keep my aching knees at bay, I see people propped up against the walls and falling asleep on each other’s shoulders. It’s been seven hours of shoegaze, but everyone starts to rally when Nothing assume their positions. They open with the title-track off of their 2012 EP, Downward Years To Come, and the place immediately erupts.

The mosh pits for TAGABOW and Swirlies were fizzy yet relatively contained, but as soon as Nothing’s music starts the whole center of the crowd opens up like a chasm of chaos. The band is noticeably louder than every group who played before, and I pray for anyone who wasn’t wearing the complementary earplugs that were handed out at the door (“so I don’t get sued later,” Palermo tells me). After the intro track, Nothing don’t waste any more time in getting to the main event. They play all nine Guilty tracks in succession, with a murderer’s row of former Nothing players coming on and off the stage. The nine-hour rehearsal they pulled the day before clearly paid off, because the rigamarole goes off without a hitch.. You have to really know your Nothing minutia to ID most of the guests, but there’s one person whose presence overshadows the rest of the bunch.

Ex-Nothing bassist Nick Bassett is in the house, better known for his own band Whirr, who haven’t played live since their 2015 cancellation, but retain an ever-growing cult fandom and are one of the internet’s most popular shoegaze bands. It’s been a long time since anyone’s seen Bassett on a stage, and his entrance is met with whoops and hollers, as well as a handful of people shouting “free Whirl,” an Odd Future-inspired catchphrase of sorts among the Whirr fandom. Bassett thrashes giddily in front of the drum kit during “Bent Nail,” and then returns later in the set to play third guitar for Guilty Of Everything’s closing title-track. It’s a staggeringly affecting song that wrestles vividly with the theme of eternal guilt (“I’ve given up, but you shoot anyway,” Palermo croons during its gutting finale), and considering all the baggage around Whirr, it takes on a whole other meaning to see Bassett up there playing it with them.

Before Nothing conclude Slide Away with the Downward Years To Come ballad “The Rites Of Love And Death,” Palermo gives a speech. Well, kind of. “I forget how to talk right,” he prefaces, and then struggles to find a succinct way of expressing his gratitude. At one point, he tells the crowd that he’s not accustomed to wins in life, but that he’s taking this night as a “W.”

Earlier backstage, he found the words to convey that message more eloquently. For a guy like Palermo, who’s been through what he’s been through, and how much work he’s put into Nothing over the last decade-plus, pulling off Slide Away isn’t just a win for the culture or a win for his band. It’s a win against fate.

“That to me is the challenge,” he says. “Doing things that I know I wasn’t meant to do. I’m breaking the rules of the universe, and that’s what I love. I love fucking the universe.”

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