Feature interview: Nothing at Ace of Cups

Andy Downing
Photo by Ben Rayner

Nothing singer and guitarist Domenic Palermo described the process of recording demos for the band's most recent album, Dance on the Blacktop (Relapse Records), as “a nightmare.” The songs were first tracked in a coffin-sized New York City apartment with the bandmates in a universally awful mood, according to Palermo. So it was welcome relief when the musicians finally abandoned NYC, decamping to the stillness of Upstate New York for final sessions at Dreamland Recording Studios with producer John Agnello.

“We were secluded out in the woods. It was quiet, peaceful — just a nice place to be,” said Palermo of the setting at Dreamland, a converted church in Woodstock. “It was nice having these songs that were written in such awful circumstances, and taking them, along with all your pain and agony, and dragging it back to this safe space where you're able to rework them and make them the songs they should have been, but with still keeping that soul in there.”

Since forming in 2010, Nothing has made a career of channeling its near-constant misfortune into distorted, feedback-soaked shoegaze jams that walk the line between heaven and hell (or upstate and downtown, as it were), with barbed, churning guitar passages giving way to the odd, airy moment of beauty.

In just eight years, Nothing has amassed a hard-luck biography every bit as brutal as a David Fincher novel. Following a 2015 show in Oakland, California, Palermo was viciously assaulted, sustaining broken vertebrae in his back, a fractured skull and brain damage. More recently, the singer was diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease most commonly found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma (pro boxers, football players).

This followed the band's decision to abandon a deal with Collect Records prior to the release of its 2015 sophomore album,Tired of Tomorrow, owing to the label's connection with controversial former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli.

Additionally, the group has been banned from playing Singapore, with government officials alleging the musicians promote drug use via social media, and Palermo was forced to abandon the group during an Australian tour when authorities raised questions about his past legal troubles. (The singer was released from prison in 2011, two years into a seven-year sentence for aggravated assault and attempted murder handed down after he stabbed someone during a fight.) Oh, and during our late-August conversation, Palermo walked clean into a tree branch as he discussed the band's past misfortune, emitting an audible “oof” and temporarily losing his train of thought.

“See? I'm not lying,” he said, and laughed. “There's been no change in luck.”

These misfortunes exist on a much darker, more life-altering scale onDance on the Blacktop, with Palermo directly addressing his CTE diagnosis on songs such as “Us/We/Are.” “I know this sounds crazy,” he sings. “There's static in my head/Everything red.”

“That song especially is very literal, speaking on all the different personalities from this illness kind of congregating. It's trying to get through the confusion and figure out who is who and what is kind of causing this anger that is always hovering in my airspace,” Palermo said. “Some of [the CTE symptoms] loom consistently and then some of them are much more fleeting, coming on like a big wave out of nowhere. It's strange trying to figure it out in your head. At least I'm still capable of realizing what's happening, and in the midst of a rage or something I'll be like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? What are you doing?' But sometimes it's like I just can't grab the steering wheel. … When I'm in that place there's nothing happening at all. It's a dead space in time when I feel like someone else is driving the vessel.”

Palermo, with the aid of a dual neurologist/therapist, manages the condition with a combination of therapy and pharmaceuticals, developing methods to “put out fires,” as he explained it. The music has also continued to play an important role in his rehab, offering another essential outlet for his confusion, grief and rage.

“We obviously dump a lot of our lives into our music. Whatever we're dealing with at the time goes right into it, so, yeah, there's surely release in that,” said Palermo, adding that having the band as a stabilizing force helps him from going completely off the rails. “It's literally what keeps me sane, having stuff like that on my plate and something to wake up and do, whether it be write songs, create merch or book shows.

“The second I'm not doing anything, I literally spin out of control and go on these benders that last weeks or months, or I'll do the opposite and lock myself in the house and order food and smoke weed and hide away from everything. This is one of the few things I can do to stop all that noise.”

Ace of Cups

6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9

2619 N. High St., Old North


ALSO PLAYING: Culture Abuse, Smut