Dylan Baldi is perched on a stool behind a drum kit, one of the few spots in his basement where he can sit. A tangle of wires covers the floor, connected to six amplifiers, including a huge 1959 Fender Bandmaster. The basement looks like wood-paneled chaos, but to Baldi, it's serenity, a creative well.
"I play all the time," says Baldi, the 21-year-old lead guitarist and singer for Cleveland's hottest indie rock band, Cloud Nothings. "Every couple hours, I come down here and play my guitar. Someone else will be here and maybe play along, and things will happen."
He's always created music this way. Baldi recorded Cloud Nothings' first album, Turning On, in his parents' basement in Westlake, using one primitive microphone and the computer he wasn't using for schoolwork. His first songs earned him an opening-act spot at an indie-rock show in New York City. After that, he promptly dropped out of Case Western Reserve University, where he'd been studying saxophone, to play his poppy, fuzzy, lo-fi rock.
Baldi's catchy three-minute gems sparked online buzz right away, but building a live following took a while.
"People didn't really come to our shows, not for the first couple of years," he says. "It didn't really translate to real life."
That changed with the release of Cloud Nothings' third album, Attack on Memory, a year ago. Recorded in Chicago by legendary alternative-rock producer Steve Albini, the album mixes the power pop of Cloud Nothings' earlier records with more complex, looser songs. Baldi says he's now writing to leave room for improvisation in concert. "I wanted songs that are more open-ended," he explains, "so I could play something different and it would still sound OK."
Baldi recently rented a house in Middleburg Heights with Cloud Nothings' drummer, Jason Gerycz, and two other friends. But he isn't there very often. He and his bandmates spent most of last year touring the U.S., Japan and Europe. Last month, the band was booked to play on the S.S. Coachella, a cruise for indie-rock fans.
Looks like Baldi made the right career choice. If he hadn't dropped out of college three years ago, he says, "I'd be really depressed. And about to get a degree in music. And then not have a job."