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.
Your use of the phrase "vivid picture" calls to mind the fact that with your band, there aren't only music and lyrics. There are also your vivid pictures — the artwork you create to accompany your projects. How does one creative process influence the other in terms of the interactions between the music and your artwork?
I'm probably the worst person to answer that question. I bounce back and forth between the two of those things so often — I very seldom slow down or stop — that ... I don't know. I'm just compelled to do it. I can't help to do it. If I'm not making art, then that's when things start to go downhill for me. But the two processes come from the same place. I've spent the majority of my career trying to figure out a way to use them both simultaneously — to create a bigger, bolder project than I would if I was making them independently.
Your artwork suggests a great deal of draftsmanship — of figuring out things beforehand and structuring the images so they can be even more powerful. Is that your approach to composition as well? Are there corollaries there?
Yes, there are. I would say all of that finicky, detail-oriented, seemingly preplanned stuff is something I can't avoid, try as I might. I don't like that. Obsessing over details isn't something I'm very fond of, but it's something I'm compelled to do. I would categorize myself as a fairly compulsive person — obsessive-compulsive, manic, give it a name. I wish I was one of the pure expressionists. I wish I had a greater sense of economy. But I don't. So I've learned how to use all of that detail, all of that baroque ornamentation in a way that adds up and becomes a sum total that feels expressive to me.
I really don't think about all those details beforehand. I think about a lot of things. There's a tremendous amount of note-taking, and I write a lot of ideas down when we're writing songs. I make demos, and when I make demos, they're ridiculous. They're so orchestrated that it's not even funny. But that's just because I can't rest until I've explored every option. And the finished product is almost unimportant to me. When I write, I hate the fact that I have to consider all these details, that I have to contend with them.
I try not to preplan everything. If something's working, I just run with it and see where it goes. But when that's happening, I have to constantly justify each musical contraption, each visual metaphor. It definitely has to have a very well-defined home for me — one that I've almost never divulged, but I've considered it, and it's there. One of the most important things, and maybe one of the most overlooked things nowadays when writing music or making art or engaging in the creative process, is that you have to step back and ask yourself, "Why?"
We're not covering any new ground. For a band that's got two guitar players, a bass player, a drummer and occasionally keyboards, that's not exactly a reinvention of the wheel. It's a tried-and-true mechanism. So within those parameters, we have to find some new life. Because we're not going to do something entirely original. We're motivated primarily by our creative impulse, and the more individual and the more unique we can make it on a personal level, I think the better it becomes.
It's difficult, because probably the best rock bands in history have already come and gone. So what we're trying to do is just find something slightly new and develop that. And artistically speaking, it's the same thing. People have been painting for thousands of years, and I feel like I'm at the tail end of all of it. I've spent a long time wondering what the purpose is, because I'm not in it for the cash payout. It's about self-expression. So if that's the case, I, as the person expressing things, should be as candid as humanly possible. I think that's the last frontier.
For you, then, is the process at least as important, if not more important, than the result?
Yes. It's sort of easy to say that, and I do believe that. But I've never started a project and finished it and then not put it out there. So it would be hard for me to say, "Yes, definitely." It's not like I spend two years writing a record and then throw it away and never think about it again, because I'm already self-satisfied with it. I work on things to the point where we as a band feel like they're done — that we literally can't do any better than this. Next time will be better, but that's it for now, and we release it. But I love the process. I absolutely love the process.
[The first song on Purple is "Morningstar."]
Is it difficult to let your projects go? Have there been times when your bandmates or others close to you have had to say, "Okay, it's time to share this. You have to stop working on it"?
Yes. Internally the four of us hold ourselves to a pretty high standard, and none of us really like waiting around. We really enjoy touring, so when we're in the studio, even if we're taking a long time to record, we want to get out there.
This record was completed over a six-week work period. There were sections, but it took about six weeks to record, mix and master the album, which felt long and luxurious. But we didn't waste time. There were no errant days, hours or minutes in the studio. And when you get toward the end of anything, you start rushing. You're aware that it will be over soon. Sometimes somebody will send out a stray remark like, "Let's get this thing done." But I don't think we really listen to that. It's more about when we think it's done, and I trust the four of us. We have an inherent trust in all of us, and we want things to move along. We can't really sit on our asses for too long. There's never really any outside pressure deadline-wise that has hurried us along. Actually, I miss a lot of deadlines, because I just don't care, which probably makes me a huge pain in the ass.
You mentioned that there are two new members of the band since the crash, Nick and Sebastian. How has the music changed as a result of their being members?
It's changed in a really nice way. If you write like we do, which is collaboratively, you put 25 percent of your sound on every member, if there are four of you. By that measure, our sound changed 50 percent. But there was something that happened when they joined. They didn't want to be the two guys who sunk our ship. We had to go through a process of touring and woodshedding just to make sure everybody knew what was appropriate. And fortunately for us, it didn't take long before we got to the point where everybody, the new guys included, knew when something wasn't genuine and wasn't really us. It probably took about six months of touring and rehearsing where they got comfortable saying, "This doesn't seem like something Baroness would do."
More often than not, I don't really care about stylistic things not philosophically working. I'm more like, "Let's play and see if it feels right." As a musician, you have to have a pretty good built-in bullshit detector, and if it goes off, you think, "Let's move on and try something else." Or else you can take something that by definition didn't seem like it would work, but if you play it the right way, if you put the right thing into it, it could become a new element of our sound.
There are a bunch of cornerstone things, hallmarks of the sounds that we do, and we can't avoid doing those. So those are intact. But we welcome some newness.
Is there a song on the new album that sounds like something that you wouldn't have made prior to the new guys' arrival? Or is that the case with all the songs?
In some ways, it's the case with all the songs. But a song like "Wake Up" really is a very good example of Baroness Mark VII or whatever we're at right now with this lineup — which is really the one I hope that sticks, because it highlights and showcases the individual talents of all four of us. The things that we personally bring to the musical table — if we were to reshuffle the deck a little bit, there's no way that song would have happened. Not even close.
[Here's "If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain)."]
Allen and Matt left after the crash. Are you still in touch with them? And if so, how are they doing?
They're doing really well. I am in touch with them. I should be in better touch with them, but I say that about everybody I know. They both have figured out ways to turn this thing that happened to us into a positive. Just as an example, before Matt joined the band, he was a sculptor; he went to art school. He was wondering where he would take that, and after the accident, he had to go through some pretty serious rehabilitation. And so he became interested in physical therapy. And now, three and a half years in, he's using his sculpting talent to make prosthetics for amputees. I think that's an incredible example of how this awful thing has changed the way for everybody.
To add even more pressure on the new album, you released it on your own label, as opposed to using Relapse Records, which put out your previous recordings. How has it gone?
It's been a huge positive. It's just a massive amount of work, but it's hugely positive. We did this because we had the opportunity to do this. We never assumed that we would have this opportunity. So when the stars aligned and it seemed like something we could do, and something we had the experience, background, relationships and desire for, we did it, and it's been great. It's been difficult, but we wanted something difficult. As we get older, we want things to change. We want to adapt and grow and get better at what we do — more well-rounded.
There are downsides. We don't get huge cash advances. But those are a double-edged sword, or maybe a single-edged sword. If you get a cash advance, you have to pay it back. With us, we literally have the creative freedom to say yes to anything we want. We're beholden to no one, and that is a hugely positive thing. Of course, there are difficulties that come along with that, but they're not the kind of difficulties that would come along with a major label, which to me would be really, really terrifying. Or even continuing to work with Relapse, with whom we've had a great relationship. But the long and short of it is, we represent ourselves better than anyone else out there. So that's what we do.
Purple has gotten great reviews, as has all your work. But in the genre in which you're generally pigeonholed — hard rock, metal — that isn't always seen as a positive thing. There was a period of time when hard-rock and metal fans actually looked askance at good reviews. Have we come through that period now? Are there more sophisticated fans now who recognize that getting a positive review is a good thing?
I think with the onset of the iPod back whenever that was, and the entire musical universe shifted, I think the burden fell back on the artist's shoulders to be aware and to understand how things work. And now, you just have to pay attention. If you're the type of artist who can reach your fans speaking to journalists and essentially playing the game on your own terms, you're ahead of the curve.
I think the world at large understands that musicians don't make money. There used to be this cliché thing where you'd meet somebody and they'd ask you what you do, and you'd say you're a musician, and they'd say, "That's so interesting. Tell me about it." And you'd say, "When you tour, you've got 23 hours a day to kill and one hour of work." I'm overly simplifying it, but I don't think anyone feels it's overly glamorous anymore — and everybody's aware that bands at the level we're at have to work for it. Whatever we can receive that's going to help us is a good thing. So I don't think there's the same stigma of getting good reviews and people acting weird about that. I don't think that exists now.
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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.