Philly’s band Nothing have managed through these last years to create something real and pure with their music, which speaks and inspires those who truly feel it. Dance On The Blacktop is their latest album and it’s another ride on their world that will make you both smile and cry. Once again, we had an in-depth talk with Nick Palermo about everything that went down making this record and so much more.
It’s been already 9 years since you started Nothing. It’s also been a tough journey for you as a person. You went through really serious health issues and still you keep moving forward. How do you feel looking back to all these years that have passed?
Tired. [laughs] I mean, it’s just crazy to think that this project has turned into what it’s turned into and it’s crazy to me that I’m still doing this. I often wonder what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this and it’s a scary thought for me. I spent so much of my life developing this from the ground up, you know? From the music to everything surrounding the music, to the recordings, to the merchandise, to the tours… I oversee everything and I don’t really let a lot slide out of my view. It takes up a lot of my time and it’s a frightening thought to think that if I didn’t have this going on, what would I be doing with myself?
It’s great that you keep pushing forward, even though it’s been a really tough journey for you and each album that you released a really shows that, so it’s really amazing that you keep doing it, keep pushing forward and show that to people with your music.
It never seems as hard as it is when you’re looking back on it. Everyone has their issues and I chose to put mine under a magnifying glass, you know? For personal reasons, it helps me deal with them by using this music and this writing to release pressure from my head. It’s been therapeutic, but it also seems probably pretty necessary at this point. At the end of the day it’s just another person that’s dealing with the things that they’re dealing with and that’s the whole point of this thing is that everyone is dealing with so much pain and confusion with everything around this whole existence. It’s a really absurd but phenomenal thought to think of all of that. This is just another record, I guess for me.
Through the years, Nothing became this strong and inspiring band. Each album you released has had a huge impact on a lot of people’s life. How do you feel about that and the importance of your music and message behind it?
It’s such a difficult thing to think about… When I think about how people are perceiving what I’m saying, especially when I hear so many inaccurate things from people and read inaccurate things, there’s a constant call of people saying, “These guys are nihilists” and that going to be more inaccurate. The band’s philosophy is very cynical, but if you knew anything about nihilism… I wake up every day and I strive to move forward with music and do things and that’s the complete opposite of any nihilistic thing. The band has always been cynical, but we wake up every day and get out of bed. We deal with things and I often harp on a lot of the negative things about everything, but at the end of the day I’m still striving to get through it like everyone else and I think people react to that pretty well. I think that’s why it’s received well and it’s held like very personally to people who do enjoy it. We have our fans and they feel very connected to what we do because I think you can feel that the personal level of things that are dumped into the music from us personally and so I think that’s always been an important part of this project as well.
You were diagnosed with the early stages of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease found in people with serious head injuries). How are you dealing with that?
I’m just trying to deal with it all day to day. I understand that it’s there and it’s affecting how I do everything. It’s right at the stem of the point where all my decisions are made in movement, so it affects me a lot. It’s a strange thing to try to remember how things were like prior to this, because as a human being it’s hard to remember things like that, like how was I always dealing with anxiety and depression or is it just heightened weird nervousness or losing my patience faster than I should… It’s all really hard to kind of distinguish what was what then and what is what now. But it is what it is and I’m just pretty much trying to move forward and deal with it. It’s an interesting experience if anything. It’s just another part of cause and effect. I have tumbled around in life and things are going to obviously catch up to you and this is just another one of those things and I deal with it how I can deal with it. I just try to not make too many people around me hate me. [laughs] I just try to wake up every day and move through it. It leaves a kind of quiet of an ominous gray around everything a lot like waking up in the morning is sometimes really tough with this new thing. I just wake up feeling like I have a wet blanket of gray overtop of me. It’s a struggle sometimes to get up and get moving and start to move on with life, especially when you have the kind of thoughts that I do already. But again, up and this is not necessarily optimistic, but I’m getting up because I do believe in what I say and I feel like it’s important to be there for the people that care about it as well.
Dance On The Blacktop is Nothing’s third album, and like the previous albums, this one touch upon your recent personal life experiences and the things you’re dealing with now. How was it like to work on these new songs?
One of my favorite parts is writing music and recording it. It’s always really exciting for me and was exciting to get to work with John Agnello. We were in a really nice studio, much nicer than like my regular living conditions are [laughs] that’s always a plus. I felt like I was on vacation. We were out in the woods in Woodstock and we were just drinking a ton of wine and booze and just writing music in this converted church that was from the 1800s. We just had really good people around and we were kind of isolated, it was just a really great experience. There’s been some calls of people saying that even though this record is seemingly dark and kind of depressing, you can kind of hear some slivers of optimism, which probably was just because we were all just such a good place while we were there. We had a lot of good time. There was only one really bad argument between me and Brandon [laughs] but that’s pretty good, only one.
What happened between you two?
I think we just drank too much tequila. Tequila nights are usually when me and Brandon usually get into it.
“I use this music as a way to pick myself up and this is not necessarily optimistic, but I’m getting up because I do believe in what I say and I feel like it’s important to be there for the people that care about it as well.”
This album feels more optimistic. I read in an interview that making this album was more about having fun and not making things too serious or too stressful. Was it a less stressful experience and you guys had more fun with that?
The vibe was really good. There’s always going to be a bit of stress for me when we’re in these scenarios just because I’m handling everything. If I’m not stressed, no one else is going to be. I try to keep it to myself to not just let it get out of my head, but I have to be there to make sure that everything gets done by the end, so there’s a certain amount of stress about deadline and stuff like that. But for the most part, it was just a really nice experience. We were in a shit place when we kind of demoed the songs. I was really struggling a little bit around the time that we demoed the songs. I was like feeling really sick and the doctor was giving me some new medicine for the head stuff. It just really had me feeling like really suicidal and nauseous all the time. I was in a really shitty place, but we managed the pump out those demos. There was a nice base for those songs to be there because they were written in a time that was just not very good, and then being able to take those and move them into a position where you’re feeling a lot better for a little while, it was a really good contrast between the two things. It was like, “We created this thing out of such an awful place, but now we can take it to this nicer place and clean it up a bit.” That was the vibe that there was. As we left that studio and went back to New York, things started to fall apart and get shitty again as we were like recording vocals and stuff. We were all just kind of back to normal and feeling like shit, like life catching up to us kind of thing, you know? Vacation was over.
There’s a particular meaning for picking up “Dance On The Blacktop” as the album’s title. Can you tell me what’s the story behind it?
The main reason for that title came from when I was reading a lot of when I was incarcerated. It’s a author called Donald Goines. It’s an black author from the 60s/70s and he just kind of told tales of poor American neighborhoods, from things of drug dealing stories and gang stuff. It’s in the American prison system. If you go to any prison in America, you’ll see these books everywhere, but when you shear out of the jail system, you don’t see them anywhere. It’s a really weird thing, but I’ve always been attracted to a lot of that stuff. I read a ton of books about the drug kingpins from like the 70s/80s in New York. I always enjoyed all those stories and stuff in Miami, but I love everything about it too. I love the style and I love the music from that time, like the old soul stuff, and also the slang and that was more why we pick this up. “Dance on the Blacktop” was kind of a term that was used in prison system around that time for an attack or a fight like outside in the yard of a prison. The reason it struck me so much is that it had this abstract kind of beautiful sound to it. It’s just like this poetic wine, but it holds so much darkness and violence in it. It just struck to me that is kind of similar to what Nothing has been about for a while. We create these lost soundscapes of ambient music and it’s injected with all this cynical, pessimistic vocal and they all kind of matched to me. It speaks on the philosophy of what this record is about as well, but we’re reaching this point of this life and realizing to myself that life largely seems like we’re in a pit of fire and the cycle of life is just painfully absurd the way that life and death happen. That’s always been a philosophy and Nothing preached this kind of thing, but it’s getting to a point nowadays where I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with this, you know? Not necessarily optimistic by any means, but being able to sit there in the fire and crack a smile about it all, laugh at the absurdity of all of it and not let it break you down. Revolt against everything that life is. That’s largely what it is. It’s kind of a mixture of different things, but that’s something I strive to do when I’m making this music and writing stuff is that for it to just connect on so many different levels of what the band is doing and what the band is living and what the band is saying.
How did you come up with the album’s cover photo?
We wanted to take a step back from having my hands on everything about this record and as much as that’s a very scary thing for me to do, there’s a few people that I really trust and Mark McCoy is one of them. Mark played in numerous bands for hardcore and punk bands, like Charles Bronson. He runs Youth Attack! Records, which is a more obscure label but it’s brilliant. The releases, the packaging and everything is brilliant, the philosophy behind the label is brilliant. He’s just a really intelligent guy and I have a lot of respect for him. When I mentioned having him help me and art direct this album cover, he was really into it. I was very excited. We sat down and talked. We talked about a lot about my life, the things that I have gone on and some of the meanings behind a lot of the songs on this new record. He kind of just went home and dwelled on it for a little bit and came back with this idea of a woman wearing this mask. He explained it so beautifully comparing it with philosophies. He’s a philosophy major. It was great just sitting with him and having him explaining this on so many different levels and then I kind of was able to fire back on him about the uneasiness that this record causes on the eyes when you see it. When we sent the record cover around to everybody, everybody was kind of just like, “What is this about?” [laughs] We were able to give this explanation for it, which is about identity and how humans deal with the thought of life and the sort of existence. It largely ties to the cover of how most people would just ignore it and just dance away on the asphalt of the world. There’re so many different ways to deal with it – with the consumerism or religion or any of that. There’s a lot of things going on underneath the base of the face that you’re looking at. It’s a scary thought to think about what’s going on underneath all of that. I think that’s another reason why the record kind of invokes that uneasiness as well.
You hate flowers, right?
[laughs] I don’t hate them. To me flowers are like the purest and simplest form to explain life and death. I have always been obsessed with the thought of a flower blooming into this beautiful thing and then eventually decaying into nothing again. We use the chrysanthemum flower heavily through this record. The flower represents grief and loss. On this record, we burned the chrysanthemum flowers in a sense of saying we’re revolting against grief about life. It’s a revolt against that idea of either hiding or avoiding the truth of what this life is or succumb into it with grief. The record is more of a revolt and to stand in that pit of fire and smile at it.
Musically, this new album standout is the sounds of the 90s, from rock to shoegaze to pop. What let you to go more into this sound direction?
When we’re writing songs, it kind of happens naturally. Whatever we’re listening to or whatever art is inspiring us at that time, books or even life in general, it all kind of comes itself into the music. I can’t really tell you exactly why it has that, but it also probably doesn’t hurt to have Agnello attached to these records. These songs, considering his discography and what he’s done in his life as a producer and working with Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, The Breeders… The reason that that’s even a sound is because this man exists. Once we were sitting there working with him, that could have been a factor and have these songs kind of shift a little bit, but with this band has always been inspired by the 90s style, from Seattle and the grunge stuff to the English’s shoegaze scenes to the Philly’s shoegaze scene to the UK stuff, even the Brit pop stuff. There’s always been this influx of inspiration from that time, but I feel like we mix it up enough to where it develops into our own thing a bit now. I’m really happy to see this thing moving into a direction where I don’t really know where it’s going. I would love to keep that to be the one thing that this band never changes, which is the fact that I don’t know what the next record is going to really sound like, but also not straying too far away. [laughs]
You have a new bassist on board called Aaron Heard. How did he end up joining you guys?
Aaron is a Philly guy. We sold a lot of weed together for a while and then we also smoked a lot of weed together for a while. [laughs] Those kinds of things usually go hand in hand. He’s a really hardcore guy and there’s not a lot of those guys that I really fuck around with some errands. I just happened to mention that we were looking for a bassist and he said, “I’ll do that” and I didn’t believe him. I was like, “Yeah, you could do it” and he got really excited about it and said, “I’m dead serious, let’s do it.” I always tried to keep friends in this band. I would never do this band if it was musicians for hire. It’s nice to finally put another people I consider family into the band before they even join this dysfunctional family. [laughs]
The first single you revealed was “Zero Day” and you also released a video created by director Kevin Haus, which is really amazing. How was it like to shoot it?
Really cold! [laughs] It was a nuts day that we shot it on New Year’s day because it was really important as the song really conjures up a lot of the disdain I have for the cycle of life. I really wanted this to fall on day one of the year. On New Year’s day in Philadelphia, it’s a tradition to have a parade called the Mummers Parade. It’s kind of heavily New Orleans’ inspired, but it’s basically just a bunch of drunk neighborhood guys that put on these really elaborate costumes and just walk up and down the streets of Philly in a parade drinking and celebrating basically. I thought with the song’s demeanor and what I was trying to get through that this would be a perfect day to kind of give myself my own funeral. It represents the circle of life a little bit, but also about how people are just very keen on celebrating around the circle of life. I was able to slide into this day of celebration and turned it into what I wanted it to be. It was cool video, but it was freezing and we had to carry around that coffin all day. We had bottles of whiskey inside the coffin and every time we put the coffin down we would have to drink the whiskey to stay warm. By the end, the coffin was filled with four bottles of empty Jameson’s whiskey. I had the coffin in the back of the van for like three weeks after that, so every time I would stop or go in the van, you would just hear all the bottles around in the coffin. [laughs]
“We created this thing out of such an awful place, but now we can take it to this nicer place and clean it up a bit… The record is more of a revolt and to stand in that pit of fire and smile at it. “
And then, what did you do with the coffin?
Oh, we set it on fire down by the river and just left it down there.
You also released a video for the single “Blue Line Baby”, which is just beautifully surreal, and it was directed by Ricardo Rivera and features model Sara Skinner. What’s the concept and inspiration behind the video’s storyline?
Thank you. This was the biggest project I’d ever worked on. I wrote the screenplay and then I basically co-directed the whole thing as well as produced this massive thing. We had a 35-person staff on this video with a two day shoot in the mountains outside of New York City. I basically had to put this team together. I was able to get Ricardo Rivera, who directed the video. He’s a really good friend of mine who runs this brilliant production company called Klip, which does this really intricate projection on stuff. They get hired to go down to gardens at nighttime and they light the whole gardens up and make this whole giant visual thing. I’ve always been infatuated with what he does and been trying to get him involved with something with the music for a long time. Luckily when I showed him the screenplay for this, he was really interested in work. We kind of adapted the screenplay to fit my idea, which was heavily inspired by the Shakespearean heroine Ophelia. This song is about a friend that I had when I was a child who at a very early age got addicted to heroin and died. She was 14 years old. That was kind of one of the first introductions I had to have a friend that was taken away by that world. It had a lot of effects on me as a kid. It kind of steals a little bit of the innocence that you have as a youth. I wanted to give an ode to her in the song. I thought it was kind of similar to the Ophelia story, so I figured it would tell the story of a girl that was chasing this chrysanthemum flower around in the woods and takes a journey basically with that. It was really great working with Sarah. We cast her and I love her look. Having her strutting around in that Alexander McQueen dress, which is like a $15,000 dress. We were able to rent it to pull that for the shoot. It was just a really great experience. It was nuts and it was in two days. We had like a scuba diver for camera work. It was just a stressful day. I was really happy when they get it done. That was probably the pinnacle of me sending myself into an anxiety coma. I’m glad it turned out great.
Are you planning on doing another video like that?
It’s something I’d definitely be very interested in. After doing that, I immediately kind of shifted some direction of myself and started thinking about what’s possible. I’ve been always infatuated with film, so it’s something that I really wouldn’t mind getting into at some point. I have been writing a screenplay for a short film for a few years now, so I think after this record settles a little bit and the touring aspect is done, I’m gonna shift directions a little bit.