Baroness' John Baizley Says, "We're Trying to Make Darkness Fun"

John Baizley, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for Baroness, which is part of the Project Pabst lineup on Saturday, May 21, is among the most fascinating figures in contemporary music: smart, complex, conflicted, inquisitive and piercingly articulate.

Just as important, his band's twist on progressive metal operates within the traditions of the genre even as it points toward the future in a way that's both intellectually expansive and hard as a motherfucker.

For nearly a decade, Baroness has released consistently astonishing recordings with colorful titles: 2007's Red Album, 2009's Blue Record, the 2012 double album Yellow & Green and last year's Purple — its first release since an August 2012 bus crash in Bath, England, that could have spelled the end for the band. Bassist Matt Maggioni and drummer Allen Blickle suffered such serious back injuries that they subsequently left the group, and Baizley's left arm was damaged so severely that doctors considered amputating it.

Fortunately, the arm was saved, and after prolonged and torturous physical therapy, Baizley is playing as well as ever, and so is Baroness, in which he and guitarist Pete Adams are joined by drummer Sebastian Thomson, formerly of Trans Am, and bassist-keyboardist Nick Jost. But the new members aren't the only legacy of the accident. Many of Purple's lyrics touch upon its impact by way of imagery that frequently avoids specifics in favor of the search for deeper truths.

As if that's not enough, Baizley is an accomplished artist whose work can be seen on Baroness album covers and material he's produced for a who's who of contemporary metal — Kylesa, Skeletonwitch, Torche and Metallica among them.

In conversation, Baizley reflects on the crash and the multi-faceted interpretations his lyrics encourage before discussing the parallels between his music and artwork and the impact of Thomson and Jost. as well as a moving update about Maggioni, the pros and cons of the band's decision to form its own label (Abraxan Hymns), and Baroness' role as one of the most critically acclaimed metal bands of its generation.

It's a heavy burden, but Baizley's more than capable of carrying it.

Westword: Purple is the first Baroness album since the bus crash that changed so many lives, including your own. But given that the crash happened three and a half years ago, is playing these songs painful, because they take you back to that time and place?

John Baizley: Not at all. Actually it's quite the opposite. For me, honestly, I try to position myself mentally in such a way that I'm not focused on it all that much. And through this music and this record, especially, I personally was able to identify and tackle some of those issues in a way that felt like and continues to feel like I'm turning a negative into a positive. So it's not so much that I'm reliving the trauma every time I play these songs as much as I'm admitting that it happened and paying respect to something that had a huge impact on me in many ways.

In that way, is it redemptive to play these songs? Does it fill you with an appreciation for life?

Yes, it does. But at the risk of playing devil's advocate a little bit, it's always felt like that. That's not a new thing. That's part and parcel of why I play.

So it's something you've always gotten out of your music? And you continue to feel the same way about the new songs?

Yeah, absolutely. I don't think we would have continued playing if there was even a chance that the accident itself would become something definitive for us that would take away from the artistry that we put into our music.

The lyrics on the new album aren't straightforward accounts of what happened. They're very artistic representations. But some of the lines in "Chlorine and Wine," where you talk about a nursemaid cutting through your rib cage and pushing pills into your eyes, seem like pretty direct references. Are they? Or is that too reductive?

It's not too reductive, but that's not the whole point. I think it's very important to note that the group is a collaborative effort, so when I touch on something lyrically, there's the potential that no one else in the band has been through that — and in this case, if we're talking specifically about the accident, two of the guys who are in the band now weren't in the accident. So I'm not going to write a song with them that's about something they don't really understand.

I spent a long time thinking about that, and ultimately the conclusion I came to — and it's not a new conclusion for me, it's something that I've thought about since I started playing music — was that through music, we have the opportunity to communicate with people in often a very, very nonverbal way. The point of the band is to speak to people and have that level of communication. We don't really feel like preaching to the converted, nor do we want to get too pedantic.

For me, the most natural thing is to write about experiences. And the language that I use oftentimes deals with the darker or less pleasant aspects of my life. But I don't think it's unique. One thing I've learned over the years is that the most universal language that exists in music is that of heartache and pain and suffering and anxiety and stress. That's probably why man started making music in the first place however many thousands of years ago. So I feel like the things I underwent were particular to me, but the way that I deal with them is to put them into perspective. In other words, my injuries are no more special than anybody else's. But we've all felt these things. Everybody's familiar with some aspect of it. So what I try to do is to write honest songs that don't necessarily contradict other people's experiences or block the doorway that a listener would have to understanding.

It's universal themes. I'm singing about a universal theme in a way that may be unique to me, but that blend is what draws our fans in and certainly what draws me to other people's music.

Not only does that approach allow your fellow bandmates who weren't there that day to have a window into the song, but it also allows multiple levels of interpretation as well.

Yeah — and that's another thing I should mention. I'm a very, very strong proponent of the multiple-level thing. I'm a musician, and I and the rest of us can be very analytical. So something we have to contend with is that there's both an artistic and an entertainment level, and an entertaining side of our profession, our passion. We don't want to purely entertain you, but neither in the context of the band would we come out and say, "This is pure art. Here it is."

That's very often a very difficult and angular and dissonant thing. It's tough to have fun with it. And we're trying to make darkness fun in a way. We're trying to shine a light on things that a lot of people don't want a light shined on — and in doing so, saying, 'This is life.' We can recognize it, we can articulate it in the context of a song, and we can deal with it. This is what everybody does. We wake up, and from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep, we're problem-solving. We're problem-solving all day long. And music, arts and entertainment are very unique tools to allow us to deal with that kind of stuff, because they allow us to have fun with it.

An example of what you're talking about on the new album, at least for me, is the song "If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain)," which can be seen as reflecting on how any of us would handle a moment of vulnerability in the wake of a terrible occurrence, as well as something that can be applied to what happened to you in the accident. Is that an example of the phenomena you're talking about?

Yeah, absolutely. That, to me, is one of the more direct songs and one of the more emotionally potent songs. I'm giving snapshots of things that directly followed that accident. Some of the thoughts and feelings that have stuck with me as a result of that. So it is a very specific song, but having written it and now having performed it thirty times, I guess, it's allowed the specifics of that moment to become almost mundane in a way. And that's good. That's definitely what I need.

Of course, I'll always have a healthy respect for what happened. But I think there's something in there potentially every one of our listeners can grasp onto. Maybe they're not exactly sure the precise moment, but there are hints and vignettes of things that I think we all understand, if not literally, then figuratively. We know that. We pick up on that. I hear that in the music I listen to. Sometimes it's highly narrative, sometimes it's more abstract. But there's always that connectivity, in part because of the music, the musicality. But I'm also one of those people who listens to lyrics, and the more vivid the picture is painted, the more easily I can insert myself into that world.

Again, oftentimes that world is where we escape when we're struggling. And we can escape there and celebrate. It's not the escapism that other people seek that can be highly destructive. In fact, I think this is something that, at the end of the day, in a very literal sense, brings a lot of different people into one common space where we can all feel the energy of the music or enjoy something as simple as a conversation. Or at least it gives us the potential to do that.

Continue for more of our interview with John Baizley of Baroness, including additional videos.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts