Dominick Palermo’s never been one for motivational speaking, but he’s down to give it a try — that is, once he’s had a few drinks.
“We’re stuck on a giant rock of asphalt, floating around in a useless universe,” the Nothing founder/singer/songwriter/guitarist gleefully declares one April evening over dinner at a Koreatown restaurant, grinning ear-to-ear like he’s just won the lottery (and not just because he and his bandmates are several courses deep into the barbecue feast of the century). “Rather than fight anything, let’s just smile! Let’s dance on it!”
The Philadelphia shoegaze band, their manager, and I have just come from a karaoke bar up the street, where we’ve spent the past hour-and-a-half rowdily translating Palermo’s words into actions — and by “actions,” I mean soju-fueled renditions of songs by artists far removed from Nothing’s gritty, earsplitting wheelhouse: takes on the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” and Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” just to name a few. The foursome (also composed of guitarist Brandon Setta, drummer Kyle Kimball, and bassist Aaron Heard, the band’s most recent enlistee, who came aboard last year) tackled each performance as sincere, giddy, devoid of irony or self-doubt.
Palermo has every reason to smile. We’re all here to discuss Nothing’s new album, Dance On The Blacktop, arriving late this summer via Relapse. It’s their most ambitious, sprawling effort to date, as evidenced by the first single “Zero Day,” which premieres today alongside a visual created by Director Kevin Haus, Director Of Photography Chris Willmore, Art Director Palermo, and Producer Sean Stout. Check it out:
For a short while, in that mirrored, booth-lined room, the Nothing most people know — those starry-eyed, hellbound cynics preaching the inevitable, indomitable end since 2010 — appeared to fade away entirely, replaced by something resembling unhampered joy. Speaking with the band, I learn that this was no isolated incident; with Dance On The Blacktop — which gets its title from a shortened version of the aphorism outlined above — Nothing have taken it upon themselves to preach being present in this cold, unforgiving universe, instead of just bellyaching about it. In other words, in 2018, Nothing have something to live for.
Nothing’s power as a band, both live and on-record, is a direct consequence of their volume. Primarily in terms of decibels, obviously, but also emotion — mostly of the romanticized, unhappy sort. Their most-performed song, “Bent Nail,” is the aural equivalent of a blood-flecked, barbed-wire daisy chain, misanthropic ends with grungy means. “I’m built to bleed, plan my ruin guiltlessly,” Palermo laments on the chorus, a dejected wail percolating through the hazy chug: “A broken tool inside the shed/ Give up the spring, then covet secretly/ The breeze and scent stay far away.”
These lyrical emphases on death, decay, and depravity are direct consequences of Palermo’s experiences growing up in Kensington, North Philadelphia, a diverse, working-class neighborhood known for its high crime rate. A self-described “dirty little Irish kid” raised by a single mother, the musician was a troublemaker for much of his youth, constantly getting into fights and mischief; that all changed during his teenage years in the late ’90s and early aughts, when he discovered the city’s thriving hardcore scene and formed his own band, Horror Show.
“One might disagree, but I’d say it saved my life, getting out of the neighborhood,” reflects Palermo. “Knowing what I know, coming from the punk world — I hate even saying that, but whatever — it was my saving grace.”
Horror Show remained active in Philly’s punk scene until 2002, when Palermo began a two-year prison sentence for an aggravated assault charge. (He maintains it was self-defense.) The punk took several years off from music until forming a new band, Nothing, in 2010. Following the release of that year’s self-released demo Poshlost (borrowed from the Russian term for intensely felt spiritual absurdity), he met Brandon Setta, a fellow punk (and Horror Show fan) who shared Palermo’s love for British dream-pop and shoegaze legends: Cocteau Twins, Ride, and the like.
“I imagine I was pretty intimidating to him a little bit, just through word of mouth,” Palermo recalls of Setta, clapping him on the back. The eventual guitarist was straight-edge upon their initial meeting, he says — but “within three months, the dude was eating acid, chain-smoking cigarettes, [and] drinking 40s every single day.” Setta became a full-time member of Nothing shortly thereafter, lending sweeping guitars and atmospheric arrangements to the band’s first two EPs (2011’s Suns And Lovers and 2012’s Downward Years To Come) and each release after that.
Released in 2014, Nothing’s debut full-length Guilty Of Everything established the cavernous parameters for the quartet’s massive sound, a blaring blend of grunge, alternative rock, and dream-pop. The music’s gauzy palette, depressive lyrical focus, and ennui-laden atmosphere led fans and critics to liken Nothing to institutions like Smashing Pumpkins, Slowdive, and — per the “for fans of” sticker — San Francisco blackgazers and onetime tour partners Deafheaven. Reflecting years later, Palmero says he’s come to terms with the buzz-bin stereotypes, but still finds the Sunbather references irksome. (It’s worth nothing that Whirr’s Nick Bassett, known for his abrasive online persona, formerly served in both Nothing and Deafheaven.) “I have nothing against Deafheaven,” Palermo clarifies, snatching up an errant strip of steak with his chopsticks, “but we’re two different bands.”
In reality, tracks like “Bent Nail” and “Somersault” situated Nothing as sonic architects for a grunge-metal hybrid indebted to the past, but sonically and lyrically tethered to the present. The LP’s widespread popularity among hardcore and heavy-music fans enabled the band to spend much of 2015 touring North America full-time, growing Nothing’s fanbase even further. Palermo didn’t know it at the time, but he’d walk away from that trek with a death sentence — and further down the line, a full beginning.
It all went down on May 19, 2015, when several men approached the singer on the street in the hours following Nothing’s concert at the Oakland Metro in Oakland, California, asking to borrow his cellphone. Wary of a possible robbery attempt, the frontman refused, so the men bashed Palermo’s face in, fracturing his eye-socket, skull, and spine, partially severing his right ear, and (obviously) forcing the tour’s cancellation. The musician barely survived: He came away from the attack with permanent brain damage, tentatively diagnosed by his neurologist as the early signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that affects people who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries. Still, he pushed onwards, motivated by an overwhelming desire to create, as well as a new deal with Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly’s Collect label, who added the band to their roster later that summer.
Credit: Krista Schlueter / Stereogum
In fall 2015, amid sessions for Nothing’s expansive sophomore effort, Tired Of Tomorrow, a pharma-bro bombshell hit the music world: Collect was being funded in part by Martin Shkreli, the Turing Pharmaceuticals founder reviled for inflating the price of HIV drugs (and currently, serving a seven-year prison sentence for securities fraud). An aghast Nothing demanded Collect put a stop to the album’s release, with Palermo penning a scathing Facebook statement calling Shkreli a “soulless man” and a “monster.” Rickly, not wanting the fruits of his signees’ labors to go to waste, reconnected his signees with metal bastion Relapse, which had previously released Guilty Of Everything.
When they finally released Tired Of Tomorrow in May 2016, the band couldn’t help sighing with relief (and not just because the accompanying press cycle kept the Shkreli talk to a minimum) — the Will Yip-produced effort eclipsed its predecessor’s commercial and critical success, and paved the way for not only headlining treks and festival slots, but also stints supporting legacy acts such as Jane’s Addiction, AFI, and Dinosaur Jr. Eight years, two albums, and dozens of shows in, Palermo and his comrades are perched on the precipice of a mainstream crossover. And having gone through all of the above, you can bet your ass they’re ready to jump.
Compared to the stressful sessions that led to their last two LPs, Dance On The Blacktop (which the band tracked last summer in a church in Upstate New York, and later finished in Philadelphia) came together rather painlessly, producing little in the way of arguments and blowouts. Such was the band’s intent, says Setta. “We made sure bad vibes were completely avoided at all times,” he explains. “Making a serious record can get very stressful and intense between people — so this time around, we tried to keep things fun and upbeat.”
The guitarist goes on to frame Nothing’s studio time in Philly as a working-man’s bacchanal of sorts: “We had friends stopping by with booze all day long,” he says with a mischievous smile. “It was pretty much a party — but we still stayed focused the whole time.”
That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements. Amid a tequila-fueled piano tracking session for the jangly “Us/We/Are,” Palermo and Setta — who were occupying separate booths at the time — started bickering over the particulars of the harmonies. The disagreement spilled over into a sonorous, booth-to-booth shouting match that got so nasty, producer John Agnello had to step in.
“We got in a full-on argument from different rooms, through the microphones, through all of this reverb,” Palermo recalls, throwing his arm around Setta’s shoulders with pride. The two ended the session early, sulked back to the house where they were staying, and marched off to bed in opposite directions. When they woke up the next morning, everything was cool; chalk it up to Nothing’s version of brotherly love.
Credit: Krista Schlueter / Stereogum
Nothing’s creative process has stayed relatively consistent over the course of their 11-year history. Palermo and Setta write most, if not all, of the music, each culling from their stocked quarry of personal demos. “We just write in our own personal spaces and when it’s time, we come together and start to build,” explains the former. “It’s completely sporadic, and it depends on where our heads are at.”
Once he and Setta have established the melodies, Palermo turns his focus to the lyrics: poetry modeled after his real-life experiences, by way of the books, films, and albums he devoured in childhood. Dance On The Blacktop proves no different. The stormy “Hail On Palace Pier” is inspired by (and titled in reference to) Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel painting a bleak portrait of downtrodden British youth; its narrative resonated particularly powerfully with Palermo given his Kensington upbringing. “Brighton Rock just reminded me of that whole life: degenerate kids lashing out at the world any way they can,” he says.
The mesmerizing “Blue Line Baby,” on the other hand, is a shout-out to the Shakespearean heroine Ophelia, whose fatal flaw — acting by emotion, rather than reason — may as well be Palermo’s own. “For a really long time, my life consisted of risk, and not thinking of consequences,” he reflects after a long pause. “The brain injury changed everything for me. I still make poor decisions constantly, and I don’t think that’ll ever stop.” Fragile, swirling, and doom-ridden, the song’s arrangement embodies the aural equivalent of the white chrysanthemum flowers mentioned in the lyrics, leaving us with a somber, delicate devotional that doubles as facsimile for the record writ large. “I don’t look at things in such a morbid way anymore,” he contends, “I see it all as this beautiful composed piece.”
Palermo applies the same reasoning to his early-onset CTE, the prognosis for which is poor, if currently manageable. Since its initial discovery in 2002, the disease has only been diagnosable through post-mortem tissue sampling; fortunately, research findings suggest that pre-emptive screenings for the disease may become possible during his lifetime.
“Whatever it is that I’m dealing with, this is all pretty new,” Palermo remarks softly of his condition. “There’s no way to truly know what it is yet.” For now, all the man can do is consult with his neurologist, cross his fingers, and hold existential dread at bay.
This worldview, cynical and yet sunny, runs through all aspects of Dance On The Blacktop, from the lackadaisical treatment of suffering — “Us/We/Are” finds Palermo dreamily singing about cutting himself on the lid of a can, while “You Wind Me Up” presents relationship problems as a twisted form of child’s play — to the conflicted style, which splits the difference between pillowy shoegaze and cavernous space-rock. Upon first listen, the record scans as a struggle between light and darkness: Give it a few more spins, though, and the binary blossoms into to a spectrum that’s reflected in sound as well as spirit. Like life itself, Dance On The Blacktop is hard to pin down.
Credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images
How does anyone, much less someone with a lifelong history of depression, even begin to grapple with the gravity of a terminal condition like CTE? Suicide never crossed Palermo’s mind: “If it was an option for me, I think at this point I would have done it,” he offers bluntly, “It’s just not in my genes to do that.” As the mouthpiece of a world-famous rock band who frequently speak to mental health issues in their songs, Palermo doesn’t have time to ruminate about the unavoidable end — certainly not with the scores of kids flooding his DMs and approaching him after shows to tell the frontman his band saved their life. Rather, he feels a responsibility to hold his lifelong pessimism at bay, to say the right thing.
“It’s turned into somewhat of a job for me,” the singer admits, rubbing his brow. “I want to keep my opinion, and be my cynical self, but if there’s any way for me to take what seems to be the light at the end of my very strange tunnel — and project that light onto those in need — that’s what I want to do.”
Making a serious record can get very stressful and intense between people — so this time around, we tried to keep things fun and upbeat.
Palermo cites his continued interest in criminal justice reform in his native Pennsylvania with keeping himself and the band grounded, too. Their hometown release show for Dance On The Blacktop, to be held 10/6 at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer, will benefit the Philadelphia Prison Society, a watchdog agency advocating for inmates’ rights and well-being. Further down the line, Palermo plans to organize a local music and arts festival (tentatively known as “Belly Of The Beats”) raising money for similar causes, and involve himself in the legislative push against mandatory minimum sentencing.
“The prison system literally dismantled so many people that I know and love — including myself,” says Palermo. “It’s heart-wrenching what the system can do to a person, how it can alter their whole life. Since many prisons make money off these people’s labor, the system is essentially built to have no exit. Whether you’re on the streets or you’re sitting in a cell, it’s essentially the same thing: There’s an illusion of freedom, but it’s not actually freedom.”
Looking back on all the hurdles Palermo has faced in his life, it’s heartwarming to see the man’s life and art converging so directly, unified by liberational intent — and in the form of a blockbuster rock album, no less. It’s admirable to find him standing up to his demons, with the hope that his pained reflections on Dance On The Blacktop can ameliorate others’ torment. If this record has a single underlying message (aside from the meaninglessness of it all, that is), it’s perseverance, plain and simple. That’s the only way you make it on this spinning, asphalt orb we call home.
“At a certain age, you do a little bit less bitching about everything, and a little bit more laughing at the absurdity of everything,” says Palermo. “I pulled my hair out for years thinking about everything, and you get to this point where you just come to terms with everything, and just try to grab a smile here and there.”
Dance On The Blacktop is out 8/24 via Relapse. Pre-order it here.