Nothing | photo by Ryan Lowry | courtesy of the artist
Belly of the Beats: Why Nothing’s Domenic Palermo is turning his sights to prison reform
Domenic Palermo has been thinking a lot about his old neighborhood lately.
He thinks about the people he spent his childhood with; he thinks about how much things have changed and how much they have not. It makes sense, since the places we grow up shape us in innumerable ways. They’re our first impression of the world; they’re the center of our young universe. Our neighborhoods help us decide where we want to travel with our lives, whether we want to get as far away as possible or if we’d rather just stay in place. And the ramifications of those choices somehow touch the lives of people we knew; our family, our community. Even though he’s up in Brooklyn these days, the frontman of Nothing is constantly thinking about his childhood in the Frankford and Kensington sections of Philadelphia…and the things he can do to make it a better place in 2018.
This Friday, Nothing releases its third LP, Dance on the Blacktop, via Relapse Records; it’s an explosive and highly personal record, touching on themes of mortality, addiction and family, and after a long build-up of writing and working in the studio with producer John Agnello, the band will spend Saturday unwinding with family and friends in the Port Richmond section of Philly — just a short jump down the river wards from his old home.
The Nothing Record Release Block Party is just what its name suggests: a gimmick-free gathering with a DJ, games, food and fun; no Nothing live set, just a day-long hang. “We didn’t want it to be like a Diplo block party, we wanted it to be very neighborhood-friendly,” Palermo says when I caught up with him via phone last week. “We really just wanted to have a few hours where we can just see people enjoying themselves. I imagine that most of the people that show up to this block party aren’t even going to know why it’s really there, which is kind of the point. It’s purely just a Philadelphia celebratory kind of thing.”
For Palermo and his bandmates, its a way to kick back before getting into the grueling stress of another album cycle. But even in choosing the spot, he had a lot to think about. “My first thought was to do it down in the area where I actually grew up, but as the idea started to build, we thought maybe it would be a little better to move it up towards Port Richmond,” he says. “I didn’t want to expect people to come all the way down into that end, around Tioga [Street]…it’s a little bit rough still down there.”
Even if you’ve never been along that stretch of the Market-Frankford Line, a look at the numbers explains his concern. It’s a section of Philadelphia where de-industrialization and poverty have led to some of the highest crime rates in the city — a violent crime rate of 1.36 per thousand residents, a drug crime rate of 2.63 per thousand. It’s a section that is seen as the center of the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania, with the highest number of deaths by overdose in Philadelphia (an Inquirer study counted 890 deaths over ten years). Palermo captures the tragedy and ennui of Kensington in the harrowing, yet strangely beautiful “Blue Line Baby” from Dance on the Blacktop. But he also has a vision of helping his old neighborhood — and the city at large — in a bigger way.
As Nothing has grown in popularity, the band has used its platform to get behind charitable causes. Proceeds from a rainbow flag colored vinyl repress of their last album, Guilty of Everything, were donated to New Alternatives, a NYC organization providing support services for homeless LGBT youth. A limited edition “Get Well” t-shirt split its profits between the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and Wigs for Kids, a childhood cancer nonprofit.
As work with Dance on the Blacktop neared completion earlier this year, Palermo watched the saga of Meek Mill unfolding in the media, and how the Philly hip-hop star went from incarceration to fighting for criminal justice reform. It inspired him to take a more personal approach for his latest project. Nothing’s gig at Union Transfer on Saturday, October 6th, is not just his big hometown record release concert — it’s the launch of Belly of the Beats, a nonprofit Palermo is launching with the goal of helping create a more humane justice system, and improving the lives of people affected by it.
“Being in Philadelphia pretty much my whole life till recently, I’ve had family, friends, countless people get hung up in the system, and it’s really unforgiving,” he says. “It’s the pure definition of ‘revolving door.'”
This isn’t just something he’s observed from the sidelines, either: in the early 2000s, Palermo served 19 months at Garden State Correctional Facility as well as five months in Camden County following a fight in Camden where he wound up stabbing another man. Palermo claimed self-defense, but was found guilty of aggravated assault. In that time, he witnessed firsthand the high return rate of parolees — he saw how probation sentences could set up his fellow inmates for failure.
“It’s just a really hard thing to get out of once you’re wrapped up in it,” he says. “I’ve had friends who’ve been pulled over and had a blunt rolled in their car and were arrested and sent to CFCF [Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility] at, you know, 19 years old. And now all of a sudden have they three years probation and it’s next to impossible to get off of. And it just never ends.
“For me, my experience was a little bit different from that,” he continues, noting that he wants to see a change in practice surrounding mandatory minimum sentencing. “But the thing is, seeing that world from my perspective and seeing young kids from my neighborhood and people from the area just getting jammed up like that, it’s something I really see myself trying to help change.”
Right now, Belly of the Beats is focused on using the concert to raise money. Palermo rounded up visual artist friends — including, among others, Jacob Bannon of hardcore heroes Converge; John Baizley of Nothing’s labelmates Baroness; famed graffiti artist and muralist Steve Powers, known for his Kurt Vile mural and A Love Letter For You project along the westbound El; and painter Taravat Talepasand, an Iranian-American artist based in San Francisco — to design alternate covers for Blacktop. “I was thinking about the idea of mandatory minimums and the pure lack of inventory you have to work with when you’re locked up,” he explains. “So I just thought it would be cool to, like, use a single marker, and a white canvas, and just reach out to all these artists and see if they would do a cover…and just let them do whatever they wanted to do with [those parameters].”
Between sales of the limited edition records, and proceeds from the door, Belly of the Beats will be donating to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy group that supports prisoners, the formerly incarcerated, and their families with things such as legal assistance, overseeing prison conditions and providing transportation services for families who can’t afford to visit their loved ones on the inside.
“It’s pretty typical,” Palermo says. “There are not that many prisons in Philadelphia, they’re kind of spread out around the state, and you typically get sent to places where your family can’t get to you. And being a person who’s dealt with that — the case I was caught in New Jersey, so I got sent to North Jersey — I was in the same scenario. It’s a 2 and a half or 3 hour drive for people, and a lot of the people that I wanted to see, I couldn’t. And that’s an important part of getting through that process, and not turning into a monster when you’re in there: to be able to see your people.”
Even beyond the for-a-good-cause element, the show is intensely good on a musical level, with long-running Boston psych rock outfit Swirlies in direct support. Palermo connected with singer-guitarist Damon Tutunjian when they played Johnny Brenda’s and they try to share the stage whenever possible. When music writers hit Nothing up, Palermo says “the first thing they want to talk about is shoegaze and Slowdive and all that stuff. Which, they were really big inspirations as well. But for me, my thing has always been that whole Swirlies, Lilies and Bardo Pond…that era was what really sold it for me.”
Music is something that kept Palermo focused and inspired when he was incarcerated; so, too, did reading. He borrowed phrases he saw in Donald Goines books that circulated during his time in prison for both his new album title — “‘dance on the blacktop’ is a term in the system in the 70s that meant a fight on the prison yard,” Palermo says, “but it has a poetic ring if you don’t know that.” — and his nonprofit title, where he put a musical spin on the term “belly of the beast.”
He hopes to use the organization in a long-term way, as well. Even though it’s just “baby steps at this point,” looking to the future, Palermo says he wants to connect with other groups to “work more towards the legislative side of things. That’s the ultimate goal here, to actually see something change.”
Nothing’s Record Release Block Party happens on Saturday, August 25th at the intersection of Livingston and Lehigh in Port Richmond. The band headlines Union Transfer on Saturday, October 6th, to benefit Belly of the Beats and the Pennsylvania Prison Society. More information on the block party can be found in the flyer below, more on the concert can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.