John Baizley of Baroness on his paintings and why his band resisted having an official website
Baroness (due tomorrow night at the Ogden Theatre) is a band from Savannah, Georgia, known for making a true alloy of psychedelic metal, the precision of prog, and punk attitude. In that way, they're musical kin to bands like Kylesa and Mastodon. With the release of its debut full-length, 2007's Red Album, Baroness established a style of music that became its signature sound and the aesthetic for singer/guitarist John Baizley's artwork for the band.
Baizley's work, which is resonant with mythological themes, has since become iconic -- and not just in the realm of metal artists, but for bands as diverse as Daughters, Gilliam Welch and Flight of the Conchords. This summer, the outfit will release its latest album, Yellow & Green. We spoke with the candid, self-deprecating and insightful Baizley about his work as a painter, his songwriting, his appreciation for Scott Walker and Baroness's new record.
Westword: When did you start painting, and what got you interested in the kind of imagery you tend to use in the work you've made for album art?
John Baizley: I consider myself a lifelong artist. It's something I did as a kid and never really stopped doing. The genesis of the type of art I'm most likely associated with now happened in conjunction with the band starting and the necessity to have an aesthetic and merchandise and everything like that. I thought, even from the very beginning, that it would be a cool, multi-faceted project for me, where I could be part of the music and part of the artwork, and we'd always have control over both aspects. Everything would always look like we wanted it to look. As we toured as a young band, our friends on the road would see our stuff, and I ended up doing all sorts of work for all sorts of bands.
Has your work beyond album covers and that sort of thing been exhibited?
Oh, yeah. I've been part of one or two group shows, and I had a solo exhibition in 2010 in Pennsylvania. But I don't show very often, because the rigors of my tour schedule prevent me from synching up and devoting a whole block of time toward making anything new. I have to do as much work as I can whenever I can.
Do you have a preferred painting medium?
I guess I'm kind of old-school in the media that I use. It's exclusively the same stuff that I was using when I was eight: pencils, pens, paintbrushes, ink and watercolors. There's a lot of people who have asked in what capacity do I work digitally, and I just don't. That's just not the way that I work.
Do you like to use oils?
Oh, I absolutely love oils, but it hasn't been the easiest thing for me to work with in recent years, because I have to balance my art with my music, and oil is kind of an immersive thing. Or at least it has been for me in the past. I've not been able to get too deeply back into it.
You started playing music at a young age. What was the first guitar that you used to play out, and what do you play these days?
Whoa, man, I've been through so many. When I was ten, eleven or twelve, I played literally anything I could get my hands on. This is around the time Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and bands like that were getting big. I lived in the country, so that was way outside of the box for the county that I lived in. That type of music, that kind of applied a punk-rock attitude to sort of a noisy template, was what I wanted.
It meant I didn't need to have nice guitars. I just needed to borrow people's guitars. Other kids I knew had dads with guitars that they didn't play anymore and amplifiers and things like that. So throughout my teenage years, we went through a battery of completely low-rent, cheap, totally messed-up instruments. We just plugged them into whatever we could to make the most racket that we could.
That's really where I started. The fact that I've become a musician who's required to play technically correct, or precise, music has always struck me as odd, because I think at heart, I'm a little sloppier than that. I like the mess, you know. It's a similar thing with art. The way that I work is so precise and requires so much accuracy and technical ability, even with the art that I make, I find myself in direct conflict with what I consider my nature, which is very messy and very sloppy. I just try to keep it tight within the lines, figuratively, on both sides of the coin.
You did an interview with some college DJs who called their page or site Confinement Loaf; you mentioned that on the road you don't want to listen to anything remotely like you after a show. What's been in your listening diet of late?
Lately I've been listening to a lot of sort of darker...I don't want to say mellower music, because it's certainly not mellow.... Scott Walker has been my musical hero for years. It's not apparent from the music I play. I listen to a lot of Scott Walker. Wovenhand, which you should be familiar with, and Nick Cave. In terms of volume, it's a little easier on the ears after a show. That type of stuff is better for me to digest because it's a good wind-down for me. I do gravitate toward dark, angular, sort of fucked-up music.
Is there a particular era of Scott Walker that you prefer?
I'm actually across-the-board totally into him. I definitely prefer his solo stuff -- you know, I through IV, Climate of Hunter, all that stuff. Of course The Drift, which is his most recent thing. To me, he exemplifies the true artist. By comparison, I think the rest of us are mixing in a good bit of entertainment in order to keep people listening. I listen to his music and I think how wonderfully liberating it would be to write music like that, which so clearly does not pay attention to audience accessibility.
Yeah, when his first solo album came out, there were probably people who thought he had gone crazy.
Yeah. Of course, he was not on my radar when that record came out. Maybe I wasn't even alive. I think when I listen to artists like that, there's much more for me to learn about my own music, and it ends up informing the music that Baroness plays in a much greater way than if we were to listen to something that's played by our peers or our proto-peers.
In that same interview, you said something about doing as you heard Henry Rollins doing and trying to listen a record you've never heard every day, or at least regularly. Is that something you do these days? What have been some of your favorites of late, and what got you to pick them up?
Oh, yeah! I've been doing it for a while. Of course there are on days and off days. Every once in a while, I just don't have anything at my disposal. I also believe that in order for me to write music that continually pushes forward and works with who I am... As an aside, I consider myself very limited, vocally, compositionally, technically, so I have to learn, I have to keep my ears open, and I have to observe constantly.
I'm an obsessive listener, in that it bothers me when there's a musical discussion happening that I don't have anything to add to. Inevitably, on tour, you hear about a lot of stuff, and that's how I'll find out about music, or I'll just poke around on different types of radio stations and see what's happening. I feel very firmly that I should be as informed on music that I dislike as I am informed on music that I do like. Now I find myself with one foot in the industry, and that's a dangerous place to be.
Recently, it's been interesting because I've found some musicians and artists who don't have records out, who are just working and operating on a demo level or putting out very abstract stuff. On a recent tour, somebody played me some of the cassettes that Daniel Higgs has put out. That just blew my mind. I couldn't believe that it took so long to get to my ears, but that's the beauty of things.
Then, more recently, it's been discovering a way to enjoy music that as a child, an angry teenager, that I was obligated to hate. Records that didn't work for me. So I've become a huge fan in the past year of people like Bruce Springsteen. I just couldn't swallow it before. There was nothing there for me when I was younger. Rediscovering it has been kind of revelatory for me, especially watching him perform. I check my ears every few years just to make sure that something that is renowned in the past doesn't deserve a second chance. Or, rather, I'm going to make sure it does get a second chance.
Related to that, "Blackpowder Orchard" has an intro that is reminiscent of "Embryonic Journey," by Jefferson Airplane.
I hear what you're saying now that you say it. That happens a lot of times, that someone will pick out a reference that was entirely unintentional on my part. What I was sort of thinking when I wrote that was that I am really into John Fahey, and so a couple of years back, I decided to stop playing with a pick when I was in the house and started figuring out all these finger-style things. Then I had that little, bouncy, upbeat thing. I'm also a devoted disciple of Brian May as a composer and a guitar player. So I wanted to do something that kind of had that orchestrated guitar feel over the top of something a little more earthy in the rhythm.
Also on the Blue, you have a song called "The Gnashing" that sounds a bit like an anthemic punk song. Do you feel that some of your punk background is still a component of what you do in Baroness and, if so, in what ways?
Absolutely. Especially in the way that we tour and deliver our music. The way I feel that a band like us -- not specifically us, but a band like us -- has to, not purely musically, but in all regards, keep our humility in check lest we go down that rabbit hole that happens when bands get some kind of minor celebrity.
Punk rock was all I listened to for years and years. It was the foundation or cornerstone that allowed me to have an open intake on absorbing music. It happens a lot. We'll get something that kind of has that feel to it. It's not an intentional move. I'm a pretty reactive writer, so if it feels good or if it feels right, we'll go with it. Then you'll hear some of that on our new record, as well as some music that's one hundred-eighty degrees the opposite.
Obviously, the first two Baroness albums had colors as titles, and your upcoming record is Yellow & Green. Even A Grey Sigh in a Flower Husk has a color in the title. Is there a significance to the color you chose for a particular album, and why those two colors for your third record? Seeing as you're a painter, it seems like there might be more than just a fairly random choice there.
It would be tempting for me to say yes and bullshit you into thinking I had some grand scheme where the color made a whole lot of sense. But honestly, the way I thought about it was a little different. I figured -- in much the same way Led Zeppelin do numeric titling for their records -- I thought it made sense for us to do something chromatic by virtue of the fact that I am making our art. It just seemed like a simple system by which we could release what I consider very dense records.
It was mostly in an effort to keep the albums relatable. It works very well for me because it gives me a starting point for each album cover. As a reaction to that, there do tend to be some moments where the color schemes seem relevant to the music. I call those happy coincidences. The titles were given just so people wouldn't overthink it. It was sort of like a hammer to the head, because occasionally there are dense moments on the records that require a lack of pretense somewhere along the line.
And your new record is a double album, right?
Yes, and we affectionately refer to one disc as "Yellow" and one disc as "Green."
From various interviews, you seem like someone who likes new experiences and challenges. What kinds of challenges did you face in creating a double album, and did any of those challenges make a double album seem necessary at this time?
Writing a record is tough, period, for me. And if it's not, then I don't want to put it out. That's my M.O., you know? The challenge and the process is what interests me, not the product. I think everybody kind of says that, but I mean it. I want our records to be as good as possible. I don't want them to exist as works of art, recordings that are listened to in the future.
But for me right now, they're the vehicle by which I tour. So we need to make sure that the material holds up on record as it does live. That's one of the things we focused on with this record: writing music that would definitely translate to the stage in some form or another; writing music that had some flexibility that could change in tempo, in key, in atmosphere, however -- length, I don't care.
We effectively took a year off. We were planning to take a year off after nearly a full decade of constant touring -- international touring -- for a number of reasons; we needed to. Nobody was falling apart or anything like that. We just needed a break in order to push our music forward, most importantly. And when I had the prospect of twelve months of no touring in front of me, a wellspring bubbled up and the music started really writing itself.
So the reason we decided to do a double record was because we had so much stuff written. We had so many things we wanted to say and so many different ways that we didn't feel like waiting longer in order to say the rest. We didn't feel like testing out some of it and seeing if it would work. We felt like just exorcising those little musical demons at once, putting them out there and just going for it. It's not necessarily a sensible move, and I certainly don't intend for the record to ever be thought of as a massive, epic undertaking.
It took a year to write, which I guess is a little bit longer than our past records. But I know bands that take three or four times as long to write a record. Each song I wanted to have sort of this purity. In other words, not such a progressiveness take on writing. But that progressiveness would unfold itself through the course of eighteen tracks as opposed to, say, on our last record, with "Swollen and Halo," where you get six different styles of music in one. That was fun, and it's fun to perform. The tough thing for us is writing something simple that never lost focus and never got too serpentine. So the songs are a little bit shorter, but the palette is broader.
Will you be playing a lot of that material on this current tour?
No, this tour is sort of a warm-up for us because we haven't toured for so long.
Is it true that Baroness didn't have an official website until last year? How and why did you resist that seemingly necessary evil for so long?
It is true. And we just resisted it because we didn't need it. It didn't serve a purpose for us for so long. I'm an opponent of self-promotion when possible. But adhering that too stringently then becomes sort of a hindrance when your audience and your fan base grow beyond the size that you're capable of reaching easily. And it felt like we were doing a disservice to our audience by not having one.
And honestly, I don't administer it. I just make sure that it aesthetically has what I need on it and that the information is clear and lucid and there's no hyperbole. I'm good with that. I can live with it.
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