Interview: John Dyer Baizley of Baroness
Baroness is a band of extremes. Within a single record—sometimes a single song—they lash out in pummeling guitars and punk-rock screams, then drop into finger-picked acoustic guitar reminiscent of bluegrass and country. Their music fuses the meticulousness of prog-metal with the warm, lazy embrace of psychedelic rock. The band’s artwork, created by frontman John Dyer Baizley, is no different: riots of flowers and grain, animals and fish, goddess women and skeletons, frequently tinged with decay.
Given the band’s Southern roots, the juxtaposition of beauty and decay, brutality and delicacy, is no surprise. Baizley, along with guitarist Pete Adams, bassist Summer Welch, and drummer Allen Blickle, grew up in the small town of Lexington, Virginia, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley and on the cusp of the Appalachians. After studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Baizley moved south to sweltering Savannah, Geogria and formed Baroness with friends from back home, including former guitarists Tim Loose and Brian Blickle. Adams joined the lineup in 2008, after the release of Baroness’ breakthrough, Red Album, on Relapse Records.
Baizley’s tireless creativity has driven him to create album covers for fellow Savannah bands Kylesa and Black Tusk, as well as Torche, Skeletonwitch, Pig Destroyer, Gillian Welch, and Flight of the Conchords. His artwork has been exhibited in galleries like Metropolis in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and at the Tattooed Mom in Philadelphia.
In late April, Baroness will hit the road for a month across the United States with Meshuggah and Decapitated. Baizley is a fan of unexpected tour combinations; when I caught up with him in early February, he was on a tour of Australia and New Zealand with Neurosis’ Scott Kelly, both playing solo sets for intimate audiences.
Baroness returned to the studio in 2011 with producer John Congleton, who produced 2009’s Blue Album as well as albums by Modest Mouse, David Byrne, R. Kelly, Wye Oak, and Marilyn Manson. The new album, slated for release on Relapse this summer, will be something of a departure from the band’s earlier sounds, Baizley says—though he’s playing his cards close to his chest, for now.
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L: Pete Adams, John Baizley R: Allen Blickle
Can you describe the new album? Does it have a title yet?
It does have a title (which I won’t yet divulge), and it is finished and in production now. The new record at the very least is the beginning of a bridge towards something more unique and honest for Baroness. I’ve been more concerned with the composition and craft of songwriting this year than I ever have in the past. Historically, and with some regrettable hindsight, I see our old records merely as interesting pieces of music cobbled together with a significant amount of serendipity at play. We’ve gotten lucky at times, not so much at others.
We are a process-driven band, and we have been refining our process, while expanding our palette, throughout the past year. We wanted to present a challenging record, both for the band and its audience. I think we’ve been successful in that regard. We have developed our sense of melody, composition, and song-craft. At the end of the recording session, I felt like a child who had just figured out a challenging puzzle: proud of the fact that it had been achieved and excited at the prospect of delving into a new one. That’s what I always strive for; not so much an endpoint, rather a series of challenges in stages.
This record, I am sure, will challenge our fans in much the same way as it has challenged us. We have broadened the spectrum of our capabilities and textures, and we have taken some turns throughout the record which I believe are considerable risks. The act of risk taking whilst writing music is the reward in itself, and we are excited to get out on tour and see the way it comes alive onstage.
Have you already started developing the artwork on the record? If so, would you describe what you’ve got so far?
I have completed and submitted the artwork for the record. It is meant to fit in with our other records in a serial, so it has a lot of the same themes, though further developed. The big change this time is that I have worked with a few guest artists on certain aspects of the packaging. I’m not really at liberty to say much more.
What’s your process for creating artwork for a Baroness album? How do you develop all the mythological and nature references, and how do they tie into the music?
My process is pretty simple. I begin by accumulating references, photography, and working with live models. I start with a sketch, then develop an ink drawing of the sketch, and finally finish it off with a painting. Most of my work exists in these three forms: the sketch, the drawing and the painting. I let some of the mythology and natural elements develop spontaneously, and pre-plan others that I feel strongly about. The medium I work in is very permanent and exacting. A big part of my work involves allowing some reaction and spontaneity in. I never want to be too clinical about my work. I consider it art, after all.
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I’ve sometimes described your artwork as a cross between Alphonse Mucha and Pushead. Who are your major artistic influences?
Pushead is a major influence on me. He was the first album artist that rocked my world. Beyond him, other album artist influences have been as varied as Roger Dean, Hipgnosis/Storm Thorgerson and Nick Blinko. Fine artists, as well, are hugely influential. Alphonse Mucha is kind of an obvious one, but artists like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Kiki Smith, Anselm Kiefer, and John Bauer are favorites as well. I can find inspiration almost everywhere.
A music writer I know saw your show in Wellington [New Zealand], and said it was amazing and also really personal. What’s been going on in your life, in terms of personal experiences as well as influences, that will inform this record?
The personal experiences are for me, and for me alone, I’ll work them out onstage and through my art. We don’t need to go down the rabbit-hole of my struggles. Everyone has them, and very few people need to air their laundry publicly; they require little explanation. It’s not my intent to be too literal in explaining my artwork. I find it can have the adverse effect of dictating the experience too specifically for my audience.
How much of the material on the solo tour is for the next Baroness record?
A good bit of it is Baroness material. I had no prep time for the tour whatsoever, as we have been recording, and I have been making the record art for the past few months. It has been an awesome challenge to present tunes arranged for a band in an acoustic setting: challenging for me, challenging for the audience. The reception has been great, and the folks on tour with me are witnessing the learning curve on a nightly basis. It’s powerful stuff, putting yourself up onstage in a solo capacity.
In May, you’re heading out on tour with Meshuggah. What aspects of touring with them are you looking forward to most?
It is always great to get to go on tour with a new band. The dynamic of each tour is different, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out. My favorite tours are the less-obvious ones, which this definitely is. It is going to take some attention and good faith from the Meshuggah audience to wrap their heads around what we are doing. We are really the “softest” band on the tour, and I look forward to the crowd reaction, good or bad. You have to play outside your comfort zone to understand your place as a musician.
Will you be playing longer sets this time than on previous tours where you’ve opened?
I believe our set length will be about 45 minutes, which is a real limitation for us. I think the Baroness show is best when we have enough time to let our songs breathe. Forty-five minutes is not sufficient for us to offer up our proper set, but we try to make the most of it. Those are the sort of punches you just have to roll with. Touring is a system of uncontrolled variables, and in order to learn, you just have to “go with it” sometimes. Of course, we’d love an hour or more, but it’s just not possible. Once the new record is out, we will return our focus to headlining sets, where we can play our music the way we feel it’s meant to be played, with extensions and extrapolations of pre-existing songs.
In the beginning, Baroness’ sound was much noisier, more indie. Recent music has gone in a more melodic, clean-sounding direction. Was that a conscious decision?
No. We’re just growing. The modern idea of a band has become such that people believe you are birthed into the music world fully formed, but that’s never the case with lasting bands. Look at Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Back Flag, Neurosis, Metallica, etc. Those are lasting bands whose sound grew and developed over the course of their records. Ours will do the same.
Has there been any backlash from early fans about a “more commercial” sound?
Sure, but if I paid attention and reacted to it, I would be pandering to our audience, which is the least punk rock and most “commercial” thing you can do. Remember, the DIY and punk rock ethos is about finding your own identity. We will be doing that until we’re done. If it’s not for some of our fans I understand, but I resolutely refuse to make a conscious attempt to keep our fans pacified and at bay. Challenge the paradigm, so to speak.
You guys have made just a couple of videos so far, and you barely appear in them. Do you enjoy doing them?
I love the idea of making music videos, but I hate the idea of the video being a showcase of the players. Promotion may be a necessary evil, but I avoid exploiting the band members themselves. We are not trying to build some a cult of personality. Leave that up to commercial rock. They can have it. They can choke on it for all I care. Videos can come off so cliché, so why don’t we get back to basics and just make art, keep the promo attitude as minimal as possible.
It’s been more than 3 years since Pete Adams took over on lead guitar. Is he well integrated into the band by this point?
Yes. Pete is one of our oldest friends in the world. He was integrated before he even came into the band. We are all from the same little town. Pete was one of the first guys I ever started playing music with, 20 years ago. No integration necessary. He’s a friend and a brother to me. I have a rather peculiar playing and writing style, but he’s known of that longer than anyone else, so there were no big surprises for him. He’s such a great live player, it was a real pleasure when he joined up.
You emerged from the Savannah scene with bands like Kylesa and Black Tusk. What’s your relationship to those bands now that you’ve all emerged into the national/international metal world?
Savannah has a very small, insular music community, full of creative and very dedicated musical souls. We started with very little and built our scene brick-by-brick, band-by-band, until we had something good. To the outside world, the scene seems a lot bigger and more developed than it is. We have all put blood, sweat, and our livelihoods into making our bands, and keeping them afloat; our individual creativities drive one another. We are all trying to raise the bar and make a lasting imprint on not only Savannah, but on the greater music community across the world. Only time will tell. Until then, I know my spark hasn’t dimmed an ounce since I began, and I am thrilled to continue doing what I do, in both the visual and the sonic directions.
Beth Winegarner is a journalist, author, and mother who writes about the myths and realities of the influence of the occult, violent video games, heavy-metal music, and more on teenagers on her blog, Backward Messages.
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