In Conversation: For Nothing’s Domenic Palermo, 2020’s Just Another Year

Palermo recounts his band’s history of misfortunate recording sessions, and sheds light on how The Great Dismal—named after a swamp—may be more optimistic than he’d hoped.

For the past ten years, Nothing have been packaging experiential nihilism into breathtaking shoegaze tracks and hiding hopeful messages under layers of feedback. The longer the band releases music, the more these two extremes go hand-in-hand, whether or not that’s necessarily the intention of the band’s mastermind Domenic Palermo. Their latest release, The Great Dismal, takes its name from a swamp in Virginia that’s home to a unique variety of wildlife, inadvertently putting a positive spin on an analogy Palermo meant to draw between a harsh natural environment and the brutal man-made one we’re reckoning with in 2020. Meanwhile, on the early-album track “April Ha Ha,” the song reaches a state of ecstasy in its outro as Palermo can be heard musing on futility: “Isn’t it strange watching people trying to outrun rain?”

It seemed a little too on the nose for the band when he revealed two bits of trivia about the record’s second single, “Bernie Sanders”: by putting up a firewall that only allowed registered voters to access the single, the band managed to enlist a few hundred new voters. Also, the song title is actually a reference to cocaine, which, in Palermo’s hometown of Philadelphia, is frequently given a street name honoring whichever white person is currently making headlines. For Palermo, the song evokes a memory of a “strange reckoning of confusion” he underwent with the band while on tour in Japan, a tough period which eventually wrought an oddly uplifting single and a small boost for the democratic process.

Speaking to Palermo, every unthinkable low point in his and the band’s life is paired with a bright spot, which frequently seem to coalesce as a pristine new Nothing song. “Everything that’s happened in this ten years has been completely necessary,” he assures me, “every hospital visit, every tragedy, every happy moment, everything involved had to be there for this to be where it is right now. And where it is right now is the first time I’ve been able to comprehend what I’m trying to do here.”

For some context, it may be important to ask right off the bat—when did you start work on the album?

I pretty much picked this record up at the end of 2018. It was close to the last record’s release, and I wasn’t really sure if I was gonna just move on past this music thing for a while. I wasn’t exactly satisfied with the way things were going in general doing music for a living. I’m in my late thirties at this point, and it was getting harder to leave the house even before the pandemic hit. A couple bad things were happening around the band, and it was like, “Do I wanna keep putting myself through this ringer?” At the end of 2018 I made the decision I was gonna do it. I never felt a completion about what I was doing with this music, so that was kind of leaning in on me. I felt like I was giving up, and I should try one more time.

We set studio time for February with COVID building in Europe—we’d kind of seen that it was coming. We were like “OK, it’s gonna hit here soon, so we need to make a decision whether we’re just gonna cancel or whether we’re gonna do it.” By doing it we knew we were gonna have to lock into this studio for a month. As a group we decided we would, so we went in at the very beginning of March with that plan. It was pretty fuckin’ stressful, to be honest, but with this band it always seems to be something like this. But this one was extra special for sure.

It’s been interesting talking to people about the timing of the pandemic because it seems like everyone in my life was unrelatedly going through some sort of major life change in March, where you can’t help but think, “Of course there would be a global pandemic now.”

I never felt a completion about what I was doing with this music, so that was kind of leaning in on me. I felt like I was giving up, and I should try one more time.

This isn’t our first time dealing with some kind of tragic, random event on top of recording. Two records ago I ended up in the ER after getting robbed in Oakland and beat by, like, five dudes. Fractured my skull, orbital, broke two pieces of my back, like a hundred stitches and staples in my head—that was three weeks before going into the studio for Tired of Tomorrow. We kind of joked about that at first, like, “Of course, another Nothing record and this is happening,” but it got to a point where it wasn’t funny anymore. Like, “OK, this is bigger than us. Should I even be here?” But it went from being like “this is a bad idea” to “maybe this is an important time to be writing music.” 

The best way I can describe your music is “tired shoegaze”—as in the online definition of “tired,” referring to exhausting headlines. Do you feel like you’re pushed into creativity when basically the entire year 2020 happens?

The driving force behind this project is that it’s always been a way of dealing with the noise of the outside world. It’s always been my therapy to an extent, and the second I put it away—the decade in between that hardcore era and getting myself jammed up with the law—that was the most turbulent decade of my life. I really do believe that was because I wasn’t channeling any of the shit that’s in my head. I was on parole and I was still out acting like an idiot, doing dumb shit. I don’t know what it was, I just had this epiphany that maybe music was gonna be the way that I’d be able to push forward a bit and deal with these things in my head. I still had a problem looking at myself in the mirror after everything I’d been through, so I was like, “OK, I need to channel this into music, and maybe writing this LP will help me deal with this past decade of my life.” 

photo by Robert Johansson

I think this is a big part of where I came from in 2018, this decision to take on this fourth LP. I felt like when we made our first record that was going to be it. Now that I’m not relying on other people in the band to do this music—it’s really been on me on this record—I’m starting to feel a completion that I’ve never felt before while doing this. I feel like I popped a lot of doors open in the beginning, thinking that was the answer. Like, “I’m just gonna open up about everything, and that’s gonna solve everything.” But I just opened a lot of doors, I didn’t look at what was inside any of them, and I kind of forced myself to do that on this record. It’s starting to feel like I might be close to what the goal was in the beginning. So when you say “2020,” like yeah, 2020 has been exceptionally bad, but for me it’s just another year.

I really like how the opening of “Say Less” feels like a drop on a rollercoaster after the intro and the sample at the beginning of the song, which almost makes the album out to be a pleasant listen. Was this meant to be a misdirection?

“I feel like I popped a lot of doors open in the beginning, thinking that was the answer. But I just opened a lot of doors, I didn’t look at what was inside any of them, and I kind of forced myself to do that on this record. It’s starting to feel like I might be close to what the goal was in the beginning.”

Everything about this band is a misdirection. It’s like the one thing in my life I don’t run on routine. I tried to be as versatile as I possibly could on this record, and I wanted to do some new things without straying too far from what this whole thing was. The one general thing with this band that’s remained constant is that I’ve preached this constant bleakness that the world gives off, just the thought of life and what it represents, and whether it’s this brilliant disguise of a beautiful thing it’s pushed down our throat to be. The thing with this band is to find the beauty in traumatic things. I think the record has that same vibe where you have to sift through a lot of heavy noise to find the beauty in stuff like that. 

Speaking of the beauty, I was thinking about how four years ago people thought the Trump presidency would lend itself to a lot of great new anti-Trump punk rock. It was refreshing to see you had a song called “Bernie Sanders” instead.

My problem with politics is that it’s always the lesser of two evils—all of them fucking suck, always. When I wrote this song, it wasn’t really meant to be a political song. It was written about a time I was in Japan with the band and we’d been on a three-day bender. At the time in Philly, there were a lot of street names for cocaine, and it’s typically whatever white person is in the news—Miley Cyrus at one point was a big one. So at this time it was Bernie Sanders. That whole trip, I had a really strange reckoning of confusion. We were all kinda saying the whole time there, “I wish we had some drugs.” And yeah, that’s kinda what that song was about.

By the time we were getting this record together it had become abundantly clear that now wasn’t the time to have that stance of “I don’t wanna be political anymore,” because it’s beyond that. When we released this song, I didn’t want to talk about what it meant, and I didn’t want to take any attention away from how important this election is. Bernie is a great guy and he definitely would’ve been a really good thing for getting things changed around a bit the way they need to be, so the next best thing I could do was to try to use the attention around that single to try to get people to vote here. I didn’t want to take any attention from that, especially something stupid like a song about fucking cocaine. The last thing the world needs right now is another song about cocaine.

It’s funny to hear what it’s really about because it seems like some people online were getting upset about Nothing getting into politics.

Bernie is a great guy and he definitely would’ve been a really good thing for getting this thing changed around a bit the way it needs to be, so the next best thing I could do was to try to use the attention around that single to try to get people to vote here.

Oh yeah, we got a lot of problems from that. I never really let politics get into the music because for me, this project was way broader than that. This thing’s never been about what’s wrong with democrats or republicans, it’s been about what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with life in general. But yeah, I have DMs from fuckin’ angry fans, “You’re a communist now?” “Do you know what Bernie’s really about?” It’s like, “You’re a part of the problem, first off, since you’re not even asking what the song’s about. Second off, like, good, I don’t want anybody to be attached to this that’s that stupid anyway.” It all works out for me in the end if that’s a good way to filter out some fuckin’ idiots. 

I read the Wikipedia page for the Great Dismal Swamp and it’s interesting how it manages to encapsulate so many ugly facets of our country’s history: colonization, slavery, profiteering. You note how the inhabitants have evolved to adapt to its harsh conditions, which feels like a symbol of hope to me. Is that how you read it?

It’s more or less just a testament to what I think this world has become. Humans have this weird survival tactic where they’ll jump out of the way of a car that’s speeding toward them, but they’ll smoke cigarettes their entire lives until they’re riddled with cancer and dead. The correlation with the Great Dismal, to me, began in Philadelphia, growing up there and watching a lot of my family and friends not be able to make it out. The record’s about a lot of those factors, but it’s also about people who are still there, who manage to survive the environment of that place and what it’s done to their psyche, and what it’s done to them physically and mentally, and why it makes them so unique. 

It wasn’t until this all started happening that I started to realize that it was bigger than just Philadelphia—this world has gotten to a point where it’s like that too. It wasn’t until I was reading about the Great Dismal that I learned all the awful things that happened there, and that the swamp was used for routing runaway slaves. Some of the groups of slaves actually camped up there because it was the safer decision to live in a place like that rather than to leave, which is just mind-boggling. But when you start looking at the correlation between that and what’s going on here today, it’s just striking. FL

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