“I Wasn’t Scared Of Anybody, I Stood My Ground… Even If It Got Me Beat Up Again”
These days, for a band to get publicity it helps if they have a strong story. It’s not necessarily fair, because not all bands who make great music have equally great tales to tell, but that’s the way of world right now. That’s something NOTHING frontman Domenic ‘Nicky’ Palermo knows all too well, mainly because he has more stories – and more outrageous stories – than most people who have lived three lives. He grew up in the crack- and heroin-addled Kensington neighbourhood with his mother and siblings and a father who was rarely around. In the early 2000s, when he was in Philadelphia hardcore band Horror Show, he got in an altercation with a rival hardcore crew and ended up stabbing somebody and serving two years in prison. In May 2015, he was set upon by muggers after NOTHING – the band he formed when he got out of prison – played a gig in Oakland that left him with a fractured skull and eye socket, among other injuries. And while he was making their recently released, sublime third record, Dance On The Blacktop, he was diagnosed with likely having Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease which can only be fully confirmed post-mortem. It’s fair to say that Domenic has his fair share of stories. These stories are his life. They are who he is.
“It’s funny,” he says. “It’s really important for people to try to have a grab for something now. And I almost feel like I’ve created a mockery of myself. I just sit there and I hear people’s opinions because it’s so easy to make a comment on something when you don’t really know, when you’re just reading the story. Like, after I was attacked, it was like, ‘Well, good – he’s finally getting back what he deserved’ and things of that nature. You try not to be affected by it but it does take its toll. And then you roll into the next record and someone’s like, ‘Tell us what’s going on now’ and you’re just like, ‘Fucking hell, I don’t want to fucking do this to myself again.’ Because it’s like, ‘Now the dude from NOTHING’s head is all fucked up because he’s out in the streets acting like a fucking knucklehead and he gets beat up and robbed.’ I try not to read shit but it’s in your face and it’s tough. It makes you sit and look at your life sometimes, the way that it’s being portrayed in these stories and it’s like man, my life is a fucking joke.”
He pauses for a split second before he finishes his though.
“But I think I’m getting pretty comfortable with that notion.”
You were diagnosed with CTE before making this record. There’s no easy way of asking this – but could it lead to early death?
It’s fine. It’s the reality of the situation. It can shave time on your life and it could progressively get worse. I’m not the safest person, either – the odds of me getting whacked around on the head again are probably likely, whether it be from playing a show or having someone whoop my head again or something. It’s scary to think about.
Does being in this band and making music help you deal with everything?
Undoubtedly. It gives me a sense of purpose, which I think is really important. I handle everything from the top to the bottom for this project. I’m very particular about it and it means so much to me. I’ve never had anything as long as this in my life that I care for and oversee. I handle everything so I stay busy. I do the designs for the merch, I write the songs, I write the lyrics, I structure the songs. The band helps, don’t get me wrong. They write 50 per cent of this shit, but I structure everything at the end. I place the songs on the record in the order they’re in. I curate every detail, even down to which bands we bring on tour. I need to stay that busy because the second that I’m not doing this stuff, my head takes me to places that no person’s head should be in. And that place is progressively getting worse, as well. So it helps. It does help. But it’s really just helping me keep myself away from myself.
Playing these songs live to a growing fanbase must be some kind of validation, too.
For sure. I have such personal relationships with so many of the people that enjoy this and that this means a lot to, which I think is really cool, especially for someone who has felt anti-human overall. It’s interesting to see sometimes, to stand in Philadelphia in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,400 people, how that somehow happened when this project started in a basement in South Philly with a demo tape and me on the verge of putting a gun in my mouth. It’s remarkable to me to sit down and see what became of this.
The title of the new record is slang for a prison stabbing. You were in jail a long time ago and it clearly still hasn’t left you. Did it irrevocably change who you are?
I mean, if you’ve ever experienced a traumatic situation like that – which most people have, with death or things like that – it’s funny how a few years can leave your brain wondering if it even happened. It seems so distant at this point. Going back and forth between Philly and New York all the time on the turnpike, I drive past the fucking prison and it’s off to the right of the road and I look at it sometimes and I’m like, ‘Holy fuck, man. I was there for two years. I was away and I can’t believe that actually happened to me.’ I’m as desensitized as you can make yourself. The human body is pretty versatile – it can bounce back pretty fast. While I know I experienced this and it’s definitely altered me – I can light a cigarette with a fucking outlet and I can fucking play spades and chess like nobody’s business – it seems like a dream when I look back at it. It seems like it didn’t happen at this point. I think that everything that happens in my life has inspired something and I think that’s what life does and I think that’s what NOTHING is always going to be about. I dump so much of myself directly into this thing that I basically don’t even feel like it’s a musical project. I feel like it’s a magnifying lens on me personally sometimes, which kind of sucks for the other dudes who spend so much fucking time in this band. It’s a weird scenario for sure.
You had the idea of forming a shoegaze-type band when you were in Horror Show and before you went to prison. What was the catalyst for starting it once you’d been released?
It was a mixture of things. The boys from Horror Show – my friend Josh [Tshirlig] who I wrote all the music with – we all were sick of the Philadelphia hardcore scene at that point and where it was going. We’d all gotten in a bit of a ruckus when we were kids, but it was going in a place we didn’t want it to be. We were all ready to get out of that shit pretty much, and when I came home our plan was to start making music that we were more listening to at that point – Red House Painters and Slowdive. Dealing with all the prison shit, it became such a meaningful soundtrack to me. I hear certain records and I can smell the air of my friend’s car that we’d drive around in – it smelled like cigarettes and I could feel it when I listened to, like, Souvlaki by Slowdive. I did an early interview where I talked about listening to [My Bloody Valentine’s] Loveless when my friend had half a kilo of coke in the fucking trunk and I’m driving around Philly with that, just scared out of my mind and Loveless was playing and I always thought that was a pretty unique scenario. But after Josh was killed in a motorcycle accident a couple of years after I came home, the whole music thing just left my train of thought completely.
Do you think people are romanticising your life? That they don’t want to focus on who you are but what you’ve done?
I can’t sit here and worry about how I’m perceived anymore to anybody, whether it’s being romanticised or it’s being ridiculed or whatever. I can’t concern myself with it and I shouldn’t, because at the end of the day we’re all clueless and nobody knows what the fuck they’re talking about and the only reason we even talk is because we have mouths and nobody’s saying anything that fucking matters. So as long as I keep reminding myself of that occasionally, it’s a lot easier for me to open my eyes and get moving with the day.
So if you could, would you just make music and never do an interview and have the music stand on its own?
No, I wouldn’t. There’s a lot of people that don’t give a fuck about music and they don’t have a Twitter or an Instagram or any of that shit, and they’re still in Philly and they’re working jobs because they had a kid when they were 16 and they’re just focused on this thing, this life, of just getting through it and trying to support themselves. And there’s kids I know who are fucking young and they’re out there doing silly shit and they’re getting themselves jammed up in the silly justice system and shit like that, and they’re just going to be stuck there. And now, people know who I am in Philly, they recognise me and they know what I’m doing and there is a small platform that I have, especially there, and recently I’ve really been trying to utilise that as much as I can, to try to say, ‘This is my fucked up ass fucking life, I managed to pull at least through enough to not be locked up or not be dead – you have options here.’ You’ve got get it out of your system, I get it – there’s a lot of anger that comes with poverty and not having a dad around, but that doesn’t mean you need to treat women a different way. There’s just so many things that can be told to people. Not everybody wants to listen and not everybody wants to listen to me, but maybe a couple might and I kind of have turned that corner, that while I’m here I’m going to try to do things to help things out that I know need to be fixed.
What do you think it was that led you down that path in the first place? What caused you to live the life that you have lived?
I had it a lot better than most people. My dad wasn’t around that often, or at all, but I still had a mom who was working two jobs and was coming home and trying to put food in the fridge and shit like that. She was juggling the pain of not having a man around that could help her with all these kids, and I still got in trouble and took advantage of that, which shows how selfish I was. I had friends out here that a dad not being around was the least of their problems – they’d only have a mom around and their mom was smoking fucking crack in the house, you know what I mean? There are friends that I still am with now that have gone down different roads and ups and down and being a slave to heroin and fucking prostitution and gun violence and all these different things. So I got off light, but I know there are so many people out there who aren’t getting off light – they don’t have anyone there to tell them that enough is enough besides someone who’s putting handcuffs on them.
Did going to prison actually help you break that cycle?
Personally, for me, it did. But when I came home, I had five years of parole to work off and I couldn’t get a job for like a year. I got a job as a dishwasher at this place and I couldn’t make any money and all my friends around me were making money selling drugs. Six months went by and I fucking went broke so was like, ‘I’m doing this now’ and I started doing that shit again. While I was on parole, I was out selling coke at bars. And the next thing I know, I’m sitting there and I’ve got a handgun in my fucking house again. But then one day – I don’t know what it was – I just looked at everything in my house and I was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And I just tried to clean it up. It wasn’t like I stopped everything at one point, but little by little things stopped. I’m still working on myself – it’s never a complete project. I still find myself doing stupid shit where I’m like, ‘Yo! What the fuck are you doing right now?’
But at least you have the self-awareness that it’s dumb.
Yeah, well, if you don’t have that you shouldn’t be on the planet.
Well, a lot of people don’t have it. That’s the scary thing.
I know. There’s a lot of people who don’t deserve to be on this planet!
What was prison like?
I got in seven total fights in my two years there. And by fights I mean some of them were just getting rolled on by a couple of people, but I count them as a fight. Five of those fights were in my first three months in Camden County, which is basically East Philly. And it’s one of the worst jails there is. The first day I was in, I was in like, a seven day holding tank that they put people in if they’re dope-sick or if they have flu, they just kind of get it all out of you before they put you into general population. And since my crime was so serious – attempted murder, aggravated assault – I was stuck on a pretty rough block with violent offenders and rapists. As I should have been. On the last day of holding, they brought some kid in and he was crying his eyes out for hours and everybody was just screaming for him to shut up and he was crying, ‘Why am I in here, why am in here?’ So it turns out this kid gets pulled out of there eventually and the CO [corrections officer] tells me that the kid was out at a club in Camden – an 18-year-old kid at a club in Camden – smoking wet [a joint laced with PCP], and he sees his girlfriend with some other dude and just walked up and popped him in the head. Bam! Killed him. And it wound up being the girl’s cousin. He was wetted out of his mind and the cops locked him up and he woke up the next day and had no recollection he even did it and was just in there crying. And I’m sitting in there hearing this and it was like, ‘Fuck!’ It really set the mood for where I actually was. And then the door pops and I get put onto what they call a body block. The first day I was up there I saw some kid get hit with a sock with a frozen can of soda in it. It split his whole face open. Someone stole my shoes and I went and tried to get them back and got rolled on by three dudes – it was a jungle. It was exactly what you would expect and fear jail to be, and I remember being in my cell after I got beat up and not having any shoes and I had this old black dude as a cellie and he’s like, ‘You better take off your socks and stay in your bare feet. You’re going to be fighting non-stop while you’re here, so take off those socks so your feet stick to the floor so you can fight.’ And I’m lying there as the lights go out in this place trying to foresee this sentence that I had ahead of me, which at that point was uncertain. I had a seven year sentence and a two year minimum, so the odds of me going home after those two years were not in my favour at all with the offenses I had. It was looking more like I was going to be doing four years, so I’m looking at the beginning few days of a possible four to six year sentence and man – I don’t know how to explain that feeling to you, witnessing what’s going on and having to sit there and realise this is what your life is going to be like…
That’s a harrowing first day – how did you survive for two years?
The same way I’m surviving now. Like I said, I don’t believe that suicide is an option for me at this point – or back then it wasn’t – so the only other thing to do is just try to deal with it. I’ve never been too nervous to fight for myself, so that was a plus I had. I was the only white kid in Camden that was in there for violent offences – every other person was in there for drugs – so that made me kind of an extra-special curiosity to everyone, especially considering I weighed like 130 pounds at that point. I was a fucking rail covered in shitty tattoos and I had a big mod haircut! (laughs) So I’m walking around in there and people are like, ‘What the fuck is this about?’ I probably looked like a school shooter or something! But I just made moves, man. I became part of the environment – I wasn’t scared of anybody, I stood my ground, even though most of the time it just got me beat up again. But I had a couple wins, I started making some moves, doing some semi-illegal shit in there that made me a little bit valuable. I made myself kind of like an asset and put myself around the right people, and by the time I was in prison I was somebody that nobody really wanted to fuck with, because I was making things easier on people.
And you switched to Garden State after Camden?
Yeah. And I only got in two fights up there when I was there. And that was the stretch of the sentence. That was 21 months or something. I don’t want to brag, but I was fucking killing it up there for the most part. I had people bringing me stuff on work details and then I was getting it back in, and then I was you know, bringing McDonald’s to these guys and they were running my tier. It wasn’t easy. It was still bullshit, but you just adapt, if you can. I’ve always been keen on being able to adapt to my scenarios.
So now, is being in NOTHING the most normal life you’ve led?
(Laughs) I don’t fucking know, man. Every time I think everything is moving on and I think the coast is clear, something else comes out of nowhere. And again, I’m not surprised by any of it ever. I almost welcome it at this point – it’s the classic of being in a storm on a boat screaming at God, like, ‘What else have you got?’ kind of shit. And whatever is string-pulling this chaos can always come up with some shit. But for the most part, this is the most normal it’s been for me. I’ve got a little apartment, I’ve got CC [his girlfriend] with me, I’ve got the dog. And I just kind of sit here with an umbrella open always, you know what I mean?
Dance On The Blacktop is out now on Relapse Records. Check it out:
Philly’s gnarliest shoegazers have made a great video.
Gary Lee Conner relives the rollercoaster journey of Screaming Trees – from their early beginnings to the dissolution of his relationship with Mark Lanegan