Q&A: John Baizley of Baroness
People think that if you make commercially viable music, it must suck because all the rest of it sucks, and I don't think that equation works.
Q&A: John Baizley of Baroness
Last week, in the Music Issue, I wrote an article on the band Baroness. In mid-August, shortly after the release of their new album Yellow & Green, the band was in a horrible bus accident while touring in England. The four band members have since been released from the hospital, and have returned to their homes in the States. For lead singer and guitarist John Baizley, home is Philadelphia, namely Mount Airy, where he’s lived for nearly two years. He was kind enough to grant City Paper the first interview since the accident, though he requested that I not ask any questions about it. We spoke on the telephone for about one hour, and since everything couldn’t possibly fit in the article, the entire interview appears here.
City Paper: When did you move to Philadelphia?
John Baizley: I moved here with my wife, my daughter and Baroness’ bass player in January 2011. It was about one week after we finished a two and a half year tour cycle. I moved here, to Mount Airy, for the express purpose of writing the new record and finding a new place to call home base. Before that, everything was based in Savannah, Georgia, where I had lived for about 10 years.
CP: Why Philadelphia?
JB: There were a few factors. We have a guitar player who lives in Virginia, in the Shenandoah Mountains, which is where the whole band grew up. And our drummer lives in Brooklyn. My goal was to find a good center ground so we didn’t have to go all the way down to Georgia to practice and prepare for tours. There was no appeal in any of the other possible cities to me. Philadelphia has a lot of the great cultural and social elements that I wanted, and, now that I have a daughter — she just turned three this August — I had to decide on a city with good education options. Philadelphia was a perfect fit for us.
My wife actually found the house where we are currently living while I was on tour in Australia. I didn’t really have much to go on, just a general idea where the house was. But when we drove here for the first time, I realized that it is about one mile from where both my mother and father were raised. It was an odd coincidence. I haven’t lived here in almost 25 years, so it was a weird synchronicity that we moved into their old neighborhood. My father was from Chestnut Hill, and my mother was raised around Germantown. I found it really odd. Out of all the places in the world we could’ve moved to, we ended up in my parents’ neighborhood.
CP: That’s really strange. Also Relapse, the label Baroness has been with since 2007, is here in Philadelphia.
JB: Yes. That wasn’t really a factor in moving here, but it’s definitely awesome to have moved to the same city as our label. Now we’re able to get even more support from them than we normally got. We can stop by the office whenever, and have them over for dinner. The band has always had a very familial aspect to it, so it’s very important to us to have a good relationship with Relapse. It’s great to have them here in our backyard.
CP: You said that one of the reasons for the move was to work on the new album. Do you think living in Philadelphia had any significant impact on Yellow & Green?
JB: Definitely. I always think that the place where you are influences what you do, whether it’s dramatically, or in a more subtle way. Very literally, from the standpoint of geography, the colors and flavors of what you do and where you are, even when you’re just going about your daily life, leave a mark on you. Moving here, for me, was a very big step. I had lived in Georgia for 10 years, making that the longest amount of time I’d ever spent in one place. Moving here for me represented a big building up of momentum. The setting of this place was good for us.
We have a practice space a bit removed from the city, in North Wales, which is on the edge of the countryside. We wrote our record in an old building out there that’s not surrounded by other people or businesses. It was very quiet and quaint, and that quietness and stillness was informative to our music. I also wrote a lot of the material in our house, which is a very old house, at least 120 years old. I’m surrounded by a different type of architecture and landscape, and there’s a different mood here than there was in Georgia, and that all allowed us to take the music in a different direction. It’s impossible to deny that all of these factors touched our music in some way.
CP: You’re also a visual artist, and you’ve done the artwork for all of the Baroness albums. Do you have a studio or workspace at your house?
JB: Yes. But it’s currently not what you may picture in your mind’s eye when you think about a studio. It’s really just a room in the house, but it’s where I make everything. I have it set up in such a way that, depending on how my chair is facing, I can either be making art or making and recording music. But it’s a mess in there — art tools, desks, recording equipment, instruments. I love being surrounded by a ton of stuff, and I keep things in arms reach, otherwise they tend to fall out of my consciousness. If I have a guitar on the left side and a paintbrush on the right, it’s very easy for me to transition from one thing to the next.
CP: Yellow & Green is the first album you’ve written since becoming a father. How do you think that impacted the songwriting?
JB: Anybody who has had children, or has experienced life-altering events, is going to agree that your perspective changes. And as my perspective changes, the way I approach my art changes. Part of the reason I still create art changes as that perspective changes. Everything is intrinsically connected. With the birth of my daughter, new doors opened up for me as a human being, as a man, as a father. That change offered me insight into new things, and all new problems to reflect upon. And that’s what part of our music is about — us understanding ourselves as people put on this Earth with the means to question and to explore.
Perhaps that’s a long-winded and philosophical answer, but I demand change in my life, and I expect that with each new thing, whether a major triumph or a major disaster, what we do changes because art is, for me, a reflection of my humanity. That’s what separates us from so many other forms of life. It would be a mistake for me to create the same music at 33 as I did at 13. Who would be happy doing that? I don’t think anyone would. As musicians get older, they’re always expected to do the same thing that made them popular in the first place. But I have chosen, with my career in music and art, to challenge that assumption.
CP: I ask because, listening to Yellow & Green, I think it’s clear that you’re dealing with a lot of these big life changes, especially being a father and getting older.
JB: Absolutely. Those are the things on my brain. If anything, I think the record is about understanding both the good and the bad challenges. As we get older, our challenges don’t lessen and our questions don’t become less pertinent. In the time period that we wrote that record, there were a lot of challenges and reflections happening. And one of the big ones absolutely has to do with my shift in the understanding of my responsibility to myself and to my daughter. One day, I’m just trying to get to the other side of the day and provide for myself; and then the next day I’m trying to provide for another human being, and set an example for another human being.
I’m just trying to be a righteous person in the face of so much turmoil. It’s good stuff to write music about, because everybody understands that in some way, shape or form. It’s the universal language of music, and I think the universal language of music is struggle and reflection. So if I have questions, and by asking them I can learn something, and maybe other people can find something in common with our music regardless of their age, race, gender or nationality. That’s the great thing about the arts — there are so many universal truths, and if you find the right medium, you can say so much to so many people. That’s highfaluting stuff, but that’s what we put into our music. We put our hearts, and our souls, into it.
CP: One of my favorite moments on Yellow & Green is on “Foolsong.” It’s sort of a pessimistic moment, maybe, but it’s when you realize that the storm is coming and there’s nowhere to go but down.
JB: As negative a sentiment as that is, it’s not untrue. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t felt that way. The point of songs like that is that there’s a counterpoint to them. In order to understand how to claw your way out of a hole, you have to fall down into one. I believe that there’s an optimism that comes from, maybe not a pessimistic understanding of the way things are, but a realistic understanding of things. Again, I think music is such a good output for suffering, anxiety and tension, since you’re able to take something negative and express it so that people can connect with it. Then you’re taking something bad and turning it into something good. The torment you hear in the great masters of music — whether it’s rock, jazz, blues, classical or whatever — it never comes from somewhere uplifting. It may take you somewhere uplifting, but it never comes from there. That place is where our records come from.
CP: With Yellow & Green, it seems like the band is becoming heavier thematically, and with the depth of the songwriting, but also less heavy musically. It’s certainly a musically heavy album, but perhaps not by traditional metal standards.
JB: This record is definitely a bit confusing to some of our audience. On the surface, it seems contradictory to where our path might have taken us. We had grown too accustomed to the tricks of the trade that are used to make a song heavy without any substance, which isn’t to say that our older songs don’t have substance. I came to the understanding that if the theme, the concept, and the delivery are heavy, and then you’re using this sort of doom-y, heavy artifice, you’re really sort of overstating the point. The music we made at first was fresh, and it was a challenge for us at the time. Then a few years down the road, it started to feel like a product we had manufactured too many times. Our goal became trying to achieve this same effect without using the same old smoke and mirrors, the same old bag of tricks that we’ve used in the past. Personally, I think this album is angrier than our past records, but it’s subtler. The mellow moments are much mellower, and there’s an emphasis on expressiveness and melody.
The part of making music that is the most engaging to me is the challenge, and so what better challenge could we present ourselves than to strip away all that was most easy for us while still finding the essence? I think what we’ve done is distill the essence of Baroness into something different, and something that has a more comprehensive outlook on what music and art can be. It has given us the leeway to act and play in whatever way we want, and that was the goal to me even when I was 13 — to create a place for myself where I could be free to express whatever I wanted to, without any limitations except for the ones that I impose on myself. We wanted to kick down some of those old doors that were formerly closed to us.
CP: Yellow & Green’s a double album, and each side opens with an instrumental theme song. How do you compare the two, and how do they set the stage for the songs that follow?
JB: I knew the record was going to have some unfamiliar twists and turns on it from the beginning. When we first started working on it, I was writing a lot of instrumental stuff. I had written the pieces that open “Yellow” and “Green,” and they seemed like clear statements of purpose to me. From an instrumental standpoint, they both seemed different, but I could feel a common thread. I thought both would help explain something about the record that they respectively opened. The “Yellow” disc was supposed to be the louder of the two, and more easily definable as heavy, and “Green” was meant to be a bit more experimental. So I thought we should open up “Yellow” with something softer, and “Green” with something that had more bite to it to provide an interesting juxtaposition so it doesn’t seem too gimmicky. We didn’t want the jump to be too easy to get. We’re way beyond the period of telling knock knock jokes with our music. I consider them to be opening credits music; they’re meant to draw you in and present something intriguing that will then set the tone for what follows.
CP: Previously considered a Savannah band, and lumped into a lot of other Southern, sludgy but melodic metal bands like Kylesa and Black Tusk. But on this record, it seems to me like you’re integrating other Southern reference points and influences, from Southern and classic rock.
JB: We all grew up in the mountains of Virginia, and then for ten years we lived in Georgia. There’s no amount of moving around that can take that from us. And those things that impressed the most heavily upon us were the things we experienced in our youth. In the same way that it seems too clownish to embrace the Southerness of our band, it’s equally important that we don’t deny that. In a perfect world, you don’t define your band by your region. We certainly don’t play by the rules of a Southern band. We’re from the South, but we aren’t rednecks. We find ourselves in sort of an interesting position. I live in the North know, but my heritage and traditions are based in the South, and I challenged those conventions that deserved challenging and embraced the ones that are beautiful. I still walk around with that baggage heaped on my shoulders. I can go as far away as I want from the hills I was born in, but they have left an indelible impression on me and they inform the music we make.
We’re all from deep in the hills. When we were kids, being from a town of 2,500 people, we were at odds with the current fashions in Lexington. Either you listened to country music or jam band stuff. I hated country at the time, and the Grateful Dead wasn’t doing it for me. So I fought against that, and developed an interest in angsty, aggressive music like punk, hardcore and metal. I was living in a bubble, and there was no one to look up to musically speaking in the area. Discovering that music really drove me. It was well before the mp3, so we had to order records from catalogs and read fanzines. There were no local bands in Lexington. We didn’t want anything to do with the music being played by the people around us, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve started to embrace it. I thought I hated it at the time, but it left its mark, and now sometimes our folk and acoustic music roots show up on our records.
CP: Many reviewers have compared the new album, given that it’s more accessible, to stadium rock and radio rock bands like Foo Fighters. What do you think about that?
JB: I want it to be difficult for Baroness to be compared to other bands. I want us to be judged on the merit of our music alone. It’s not like we were listening to the radio, or to the Foo Fighters’ back catalogue and saying, “What can we get from this?” So I don’t get the comparisons. But I’m proud to say that our music is difficult to categorize; I’d consider it a triumph if there’s no genre to easily slap on us.
CP: Everything on the radio really sucks, I think, so it must be difficult to be called a radio-ready band. And as bands get a bigger audience, and their music is appreciated on a larger scale, there’s always backlash.
JB: The radio sucks. It’s awful. And that rubs off on everyone who makes music that is commercially successful. People think that if you make commercially viable music, it must suck because all the rest of it sucks, and I don’t think that equation works. Somebody needs to write a good song that gets on the radio. If the idea of the band is to challenge the status quo, and to do something unique, then what better an arena to fight that battle than on the radio, which is in need of a good underdog. But I don’t think Baroness has a running shot at doing anything like that yet.
There’s a tendency to think that a band starts to suck when they try to appeal to a larger fan base, and with that thought comes the idea that you’re trying to sell more records by watering things down. There’s a whole litany of offenses that you can be called to trial for as soon as your music becomes less niche oriented, but I just don’t care about that. We wanted to write better music, and we wanted to speak more plainly and clearly to people. We want to do whatever the creative spark inside of us tells us to do. We want to challenge the conventions by which modern people listen to and enjoy music. Most importantly, it’s of critical importance that a musician remains interested in the music they’re making, and we are. Our music sustains our passions. As we progress, people are going to make assumptions about us, and that’s a very natural thing. This album might be a bit more accessible, in that it’s toned down and more melodic, and I realize that’s a huge gamble because it’s a different sound than what was previously working for us as a band. Now we’re outside of the box of metal music. It wasn’t in our heart to continue down that path, and we’ll continue to make twists and turns and go wherever our creativity takes us.
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