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Less Than Zero: Nothing Look Back and Push Beyond

October 10, 2018

Words by Emily Kovach. Photo by Gene Smirnov.

Coming in through the back door of Ortlieb’s, the legendary jazz club-turned-modern music venue in Northern Liberties, is a disorienting experience. The mid-afternoon sunlight is quickly swallowed by the club’s windowless dark and the Lynch-ian red velvet draped behind the stage, which is weakly lit by a string of party lights. The city noise is muffled, and the recycled air is tinged with stale beer and body odor. Sun spots drift around my vision as my eyes adjust, focusing first on an ’80s arcade game in the corner called “Narc” and next on a creepy stuffed cat sitting on the window of the soundbooth.

On the low stage, the guys in the band Nothing are breaking down their gear after a practice, cracking jokes and reminiscing about old Eminem songs and his connection to 50 Cent. Their conversation is awash in reverb, ghostly little echoes picked up by a vocal mic someone forgot to turn off. “What was it, nine times, that he got shot?”   

The band is moving slowly, tired after a long morning rehearsal in the cramped space. Thanks to an ongoing arrangement with the club, Nothing has been allowed to use the room for the past few years during the club’s off hours. Today, though, they’re not packing it up until the next practice—this load-out is the unofficial start of a month-long U.S. tour spanning September and part of October; November and December will find them playing a few dates across Western Europe.

The JUMP photographer is setting up for a photoshoot, and front man Domenic Palermo announces he’s going to get changed first. “I should probably be in a shirt I haven’t been sweating in for the past four hours,” he muses. It’s a small moment, but one that points to something larger: Even without a publicist on-site, or the tour manager who will soon clear the way through the ups and downs of life on the road, Palermo knows, all punk cred aside, it’s probably best to not look a sweaty mess in a magazine cover photo. People are paying attention.

And they are. Though Nothing has been steadily gaining momentum in its seven-year run, the newest record, Dance on the Blacktop, released by Philly label Relapse Records on August 24, is pushing them ever-closer to that elusive moment of “blowing up.” Press coverage, from Revolver to NPR, has been glowingly positive (the new record was scored a 7.1 on Pitchfork, if you care about that sort of thing), they’ve got close to 93,000 monthly listens on Spotify and will almost surely sell out Union Transfer (which they call their “home venue”) on October 6.

Tour is a topic that nearly all bands have conflicted feelings about, and Nothing is no different. Yes, of course they love playing live, meeting new people, seeing old friends, experiencing different landscapes and getting a change from their regular routines. But there’s also the boredom backstage, the endless days in the van (which they’ve put 140,000 miles on in the five years since buying it), the missing of creature comforts. But ultimately, it’s a job, as Palermo points out. “We literally run ourselves to E financially when we’re doing this, because to do this band at this speed, there’s not a lot of time for anything else … we put everything into this,” he says. “[So, after tour] it’s obviously nice to not be poor for a little while.”

Looking around the table while we chat, I’m struck with the incongruence of the bands’ collective appearance and vibe and their sound. They are all heavily tattooed (Palermo has so many tattoos on his chest, it looks like he’s wearing another shirt under his clean button-up), with the aesthetic of skateboarders who know how to party; foul-mouthed ball-busters with a collective energy that borders on misanthropic.

Then there’s their music, a sort of shoegaze/grunge blend that, while maintaining a certain intensity and edge, would make a perfectly acceptable soundtrack to make out to. Most of the members of the band do, in fact, come from punk and hardcore music scenes (Palermo, notably, fronted the Philly hardcore band Horror Show), and maintain their connections to those roots through their bizarre, usually unsettling music videos (including the recently released “I Hate the Flowers,” directed by London-based videographer Matt Newman), emotionally raw and dark lyrics and their ridiculously loud stage volume, by now one of their signature calling cards.

There are also stints of bad behavior, both on record (Palermo served a two-year jail sentence starting in 2002 on charges of aggravated assault) and off (rumors that the band has thrown guitars into the audience during shows), though it can’t be denied that the guys have sweet sides. For example, guitarist Brandon Setta says that a watershed moment for him with the band was their sold-out show at Union Transfer on their last tour. “That’s a show I’m glad my mom was there to see,” he says. “All our families where there, all our friends were there, huge guest list … that was a defining show for me.”

Nothing is also community-minded: To celebrate the release of Dance on the Blacktop, they threw a block party in Port Richmond, near where Palermo grew up, as a sort of thank-you gift to the city. They’ve been involved with groups like Rock to the Future and are turning their record-release show in October into a fundraiser for the Philadelphia Prison Society. Palermo is also the founder of Belly of the Beats (BotB), a new nonprofit that will work toward prison reform and help families of people in the system. Through an ongoing partnership with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the goal of the organization is to provide funding and volunteers to inmates with legal needs, assistance to their families and support during inmates’ transition to society once their sentence is complete. A core value of BotB is the belief that “reforms for inmates and an involved/informed community with the correct resources can help enact positive change, creating a domino effect to reach the youth.”

Nothing’s record label, Relapse Records, stacked with metal bands like Pig Destroyer, Obituary, and Obscura fits more closely with the band’s hardcore past. Bob Lugowe, the director of marketing and A&R at Relapse, says Nothing embodies the label’s aesthetic of “being dark, heavy and distinctive,” and “shatters conceptions on what an indie rock band can look and sound like.” The folks at Relapse originally discovered Nothing through Jeff Zeigler, a Philly producer who worked on the band’s 2014 album Guilty of Everything.

“Jeff raved about the band to us and soon as we heard [the album], we were hooked,” Lugowe remembers. “We all came out to see them open for Deafheaven at The Barbary when both bands were relatively unknown. That show sealed the deal.”

Though their live performances are epic, specifically thanks to a volume level that threatens to swallow you whole (in a good way), the band members uniformly agree that recording is their favorite mode of creativity. “You finally eventually hear your [lousy] demo turn into a huge studio sound, and it gets you more excited to work on it in a bigger way than in your bedroom,” Setta says.

Dance on the Blacktop was recorded in the late fall of 2017, in the legendary Dreamland Studio, inside a gorgeous 1896 church in Woodstock, New York, with producer John Agnello, who has worked with artists like Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. The experience was immersive, a temporary floating Nothing Island.

“We had our own house, [we were] getting [wasted] the whole time, making music, and no one could bother us,” Palermo reflects. “Don’t get me wrong, I like playing in front of people, but recording is so much more personal … you’re in your own space.”

The result of life on the island is the nine-song full-length, headed up by the record’s first single, “Zero Day.” While unconfirmed that the song title is a nod to the Smashing Pumpkins, the first few riffs of the song channel ’90s grunge without flinching. The whole album is as awash with nostalgia as it is with distortion. The song “Us/We/are” sounds like something from a 1993-era Thom Yorke and Kurt Cobain supergroup, and, run through a different sequence of pedals, the melancholy opening notes of “The Carpenter’s Son,” a song about addiction, anger and death, could easily be mistaken for early Soundgarden.

Palermo readily admits that the album is informed by the bands he and the others loved in middle and high school, Seattle grunge, shoegaze bands from England and Boston, Britpop, and some punk and hardcore. But for him, the nostalgia goes deeper, gets personal. “Our songwriting has always been influenced by what’s going on around us, life-wise,” he says. “So, this record has that ’90s nostalgic sound and has me speaking on so many things, lyrically, from my time growing up in the ’90s in Philadelphia.”

“Zero Day,” is blanketed with a bleak claustrophobia, a feeling of being trapped, stuck, withering, as illustrated in the video, where Palermo is carried in a coffin by a group of men walking under the El train. “Light abandons me/I guess/I wasn’t meant to see/Hostage of/Unspeakable mistrust/Motionless/Emotionless/Empire of rust,” he sings in that quiet-but-tortured way of so many grunge rock front men before him. “Hail on Palace Pier” is an eerie ballad, a song for the half-feral kids running amok in the parts of the city untouched by tourism and economic progress. “Lost and found and lingering/Vapor angels climb from sewer holes/Young and dumb and full of tears/It’s never a true love until it goes,” he sings at the song’s start.

Philly is important to the band, wrapped up tightly with its identity and its history. But for Palermo, especially, it is tangled in ambivalence about his tough childhood and the weariness that comes with being a native of a place it seems no one can truly escape from. He and Setta moved to New York three years ago (the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, respectively), but somehow, Philly keeps its claws in them, pulling them back again and again with its hometown tractor beam.

“You can’t manage to get out of Philadelphia no matter what you do … no one in my family ever left,” he says. “New York doesn’t even seem like a real move.”

And so as Nothing departs for tour, crisscrossing the country, unloading at different clubs each night to play in front of bigger crowds than ever, staying in nicer hotels then ever and then heading out again each morning to do it all over again, they embrace a specific tension—a very rock and roll kind of tension—between nihilism and hope. Their name implies a void, an inevitable defeat. And their music is fatalistic and dark, dreamy in an almost-nightmare way.  “Our World is Nothing” reads the banner that hangs behind them onstage each night, but this is belied by their forward progress as a band, and the victories they’ve seen in spite of all their struggles. In their songs and videos, Nothing’s world may be full of heartbreak and chaos, but the real world is opening up for them.

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