The Colors of Baroness: John Baizley and Sebastian Thomson Talk “Gold & Grey”
The latest Baroness album Gold & Grey comes out this week and is already streaming online. Back when we spoke with vocalist/guitarist John Baizley and drummer Sebastian Thomson, the band was in a kind of semi-stasis: the album was finished, but final touches were being completed (Baizley, who has always had a hand in nearly all of the band’s artwork, had just finished the cassette layout the previous evening). They had a North American tour with Deafheaven and Zeal & Ardor in tow culminating with headlining Decibel Metal & Beer Fest, but could only tease the forthcoming album, playing the two pre-release singles “Borderlines” and “Seasons.”
It’s sobering to realize that Baroness, who emerged from Georgia on independent labels such as Hyperrealist, have the same management team behind them that guides the careers of Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Metallica. The band skipped away from Relapse Records to release 2015’s Purple on their own Abraxan Hymns label, and the Gold & Grey has the expectations of taking the band to “the next level,” as those in the biz are wont to say.
The band, rounded out by bassist Nick Jost and brand-new guitarist Gina Gleason, definitely lived up to their end of the bargain. The record straddles both what we have become accustomed from Baroness -- Baizley’s sturdy baritone is as ubiquitous as his artwork on dozens of album covers and gig posters -- but also offers unexpected twists. The progressive nature of the group seems at first glance to be muted, but the band insists it’s just far subtler this time out, something that checks out with repeated listens.
In the back of the band’s cluttered tour bus just outside of Washington D.C., Baizley and Thomson chowed down on carry-out sushi and discussed how Gold & Grey was both the easiest and also the toughest record they ever made.
There was a quote that I found online from John that said on the last record, "Sebastian and Nick have been in the band long enough that they understand what we do." Now you’re gearing up toward Gold & Grey coming out and you had Gina come in as someone who did not have the benefit of being around for very long. How did that all mesh to create the new record?
Baizley: I actually think there was a pretty critical moment when we were writing Purple. I think I had one idea in mind with what we were doing and [Thomson] and Pete and Nick had a very different thing in mind! The way I was going about the record wasn't… I didn't really have as much of an articulated direction. I'm pretty sure it was you [motions to Thomson] who kind of laid out, for the first time in my life, what the band was in a pretty brief couple of sentences. It all made perfect sense to me. At that point I was like, "Okay, you definitely understand what's going on better than I do." To me that really helped get everybody really linear in terms of how we were going to do Purple.
So I think with this record that Nick and Thomson and all had a pretty clear idea in mind that we didn't want to do…
Thomson: Purple number two.
Baizley: Yeah. That's always really been the cornerstone of each record; it just has to be a big move away from the former record. Not necessarily all the former records, but whatever each successive record has been.
I don't know what Gina expected, but I think the lack of her experience recording and writing with us and between Nick and Thomson, the idea that we had, and being a little bit more open-ended and a little bit more expressive or broad and diverse in how we were writing ended up becoming this very interesting thing that I don't think any one of us really understood at any point during the process. It was kind of awesome.
Thomson: I think she was more surprised. Obviously she was the new member, but I've had this experience in other bands too. There's like a sort of automatic reactionary thing in a band, I mean it as a positive thing. “This last album was great, let's do something different.” It's an automatic reaction.
Because Gina wasn't there... Nick, John, and I all knew that this was going to be reactionary toward Purple without really even saying it. We just expected it. But Gina was like, "Oh hey guys, we're making an album now." And I don't think she realized how different it was going to be from Purple. We all kind of expected it.
Was there any kind of an epiphany where she kind of caught on?
Baizley: I'm not sure that anybody was ever left in the dust more than anybody else. I think one the fondest memories I have of the past couple years is just how on the edge of doing something new it always felt like we were. I don't know how everybody else filters that feeling, but I know that at certain points we'd be listening to playback as we were recording or we'd be writing something, and just sort of like the four of us kind of had to throw our hands up and laugh.
Thomson: In a weird way…
Baizley: ...Because we don't know what it is!
Thomson: And I'm not saying that to be like, "Oh we're the most unique band ever," but honestly I do think some other very awesome great bands are like, "We are going to combine Deep Purple with Acid House," whatever, as an example, right? And that's cool. There's nothing wrong with that. “We're going to combine Black Sabbath with John Lennon” [he says, pointing at my Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats shirt]. Awesome! I'm way down with both of those artists and that combination! That's an awesome band!
But this time we're kind of like, "this is happening." Not that we're clueless, but we just let it. We didn't have an agenda.
Baizley: We let it roll and we let a lot of improvised moments become scripted. We improvised a lot.
Thomson: There was one or two straight up things that just didn't get edited that are just on the album.
Baizley: The last track on the record [“Pale Sun”] was just a jam. It was based on really just one bar grooves and base lines.
I think it stands to reason that I've probably come up with some routines or habits that are somewhat idiosyncratic, but not entirely. The thing that was really interesting to me though, was that we had so many ideas. We wanted to cover so much ground and we didn't spend a whole lot of time arguing over what details would have traditionally been sticking points, or at least 45 minute discussions.
I found that in the spirit of some of the more free ideas on the record, I found we really didn't argue.
Thomson: We debated a hell of a lot but it wasn't arguing. It was all…
Baizley: It was never like, this is a good idea or this is a bad idea. It was: [here are] two or three ideas we have, we need to choose one of them. It was never as antagonistic as it has been traditionally, where you're speaking about one idea and whether or not that one idea is going to be the valuable one to record or to write. We would have these looser, more open-ended ideas and we just had to choose between multiple good ideas as opposed to trying to identify what is bad.
Thomson: It was also like what you said before, it was less antagonistic because it's not like everybody had a specific goal. Like, “this is going to be the Rush number of this album,” or whatever. You know? That didn't happen. So nobody was defending their one specific particular vision for one track or whatever.
So nobody had a baby.
Thomson: Nobody had a baby. It was all our little weird babies.
Baizley: There was a vocal baby. That ended up taking a while because in many cases, we had to kind of retrofit the vocals to the music, because we had written so much music. I found that this happens every other record.
[With] Purple, the lyrics and vocals were written in tandem with the music. Actually, Yellow & Green was pretty much the same -- we had the songs finished, the demo, chorus and everything. Blue Record was lighting in a bottle. We had to record vocals on Wednesday, we wrote Tuesday night. Wednesday night, we wrote Thursday's vocals.
This [Gold & Grey] was like that but on a bigger scale and kind of more intensive. And the music was far more challenging to find songs inside of.
That is interesting to hear. There are a few songs in the “Steel That Sleeps the Eye” mode. “I'd Do Anything," in particular, but also “Tourniquet” and “Emmett-Radiating Light” that seem like some of the more intimate lyrics you’ve penned.
Baizley: That's why I said the lyrics were kind of the baby on this record. I haven't really figured out a way to explain this yet but typically in Baroness, there's a real push and emphasis on creating these almost vocal-like guitar harmonic moments. I think it's a hallmark of our sound. It's never going away, like the harmonized leads. In the past, I’d write these really slow, languid things that fit over the music and I’ve come to realize that they're pretty much just vocal lines. The pacing, the breath of it is more a vocal thing than an instrumental thing.
With this record having sort of realized that, I was more interested in finding actual vocals for those lines and then saving the over-the-top guitar harmonic moments for… not the same point in every single song on the record. That really quickly shifted the focus of the instrumentation to me.
And I think in addition to that, very early in the process, Seb and Nick and Gina were talking. Nick felt one thing we could do with Gold & Grey that we hadn't done as much development with on Purple, was to define Sebastian and Nick as a rhythmic duo, rather than try to split the difference between who they are as musicians and the historic sense of Baroness rhythm structure.
Thomson: I don't remember actually having…
Baizley: You said, "It would be cool if we focused a lot more on hypnotic based stuff." It’s not hypnotic but it is groove. There is a deep groove.
Thomson: Nick would probably say the same thing. On Purple I felt a little bit of an obligation to continue some of the language of Baroness, as far as the drums goes. And I still do, to this day.
But on this album, I was like, "I'm going to put a little bit of my old original style in here see what happens." And it's on there and it's, I think it's cool.
Baizley: I think that the way that Baroness traditional gets there, and we have gone some permutations with all the lineups that we have -- we can talk about that at length -- but it takes quite a bit of touring to figure it out. And then, I think in some cases, it takes recording a record with Baroness to really see how putting your technique into action on an audio recording by this band, the way that we do things, how that pans out. I always felt like each of the four of us can put a significant amount of our own personal character into the songs and the parts that play, without losing the sum that's greater than its parts.
I think it’s maybe just more of a reflection of the confidence that we had gained.
Speaking of the personal character and grooves, I found that a few songs such as “Front Toward Enemy” and “I’m Already Gone” that have an almost post-punk new-wave rhythm which is a little bit of a departure from what Baroness is known for.
Thomson: I agree but ironically, before when Allen [Blickle] was in the band, that was also Allen's thing, He's a heavy drummer who didn't want to do the obvious heavy stuff. He just wanted to add different elements in there. And it's still happening. It’s just different.
Baizley: We‘re all tight with Allen still and he and I have even laughed about this a lot, but the thing I always said after Seb joined, we had Allen who just couldn't help but be John Bonham all the time. He’d try to put a little disco or electronic kind of groove flair in there but it would always belie his tendencies to just hit as hard as he could.
Then we got Seb, whose background leans that way more so, but on Purple, I think you were just like, "I'm just going to be rock drummer!"
Thomson: I was like, "Finally, I'm in a heavy band! Yes!”
Baizley: So it's kind of like, we traded one guy who was 90% this, but working at that 10% of this, for a guy who is 10% this, working for the other 90%.
Thomson: I think we said before that Allen and I came at a similar thing from opposite ends. It's kind of like convergent evolution how shark and a dolphin have the same shape.
Relatedly, I think Nick is all over the place on this record. There are some songs where he really takes the lead in ways that hadn't really happened before.
Thomson: I think it's the way you and Dave [Fridmann] mixed was a conscious decision.
Baizley: Yeah. I’ve always thought Dave's recordings as being extremely friendly to the bass lines. If Dave hears a hook in the bass, he's going to make sure that that bass hook is the audible hook. And I think that's a very valuable thing. And that's something that clearly I like. I think a band like Baroness where the external tendencies, it's a guitar band with loud vocals. We can still play all that guitar, but if at the mix level, or presentation level, you pull the guitars back and let the drums and bass breathe through that, you're no less a guitar band, it just sounds a little bit more well-rounded to me.
But the other thing is Nick is just unreal…
Thomson: He's a very talented bass player and it's a shame to not make it louder.
Baizley: [On] Yellow & Green, I had to play bass, because our bass player [Summer Welch] quit. The fortunate thing was I wrote all our bass lines up until Purple so the bass had some hooks in it because I was kind of writing bass as a guitar player. When Nick joined the band, I was like, "I'm not telling this dude what to do." I wouldn't even know where to begin!
Every variable that changes, especially when you it comes down to the lineup, those variables make a huge impact. The more we highlight that, and go with it, I think the better and the more successful we've been. It's never been a case of, "Well let's play those old songs like we used to play them." I think it's more interesting moving forward for us to say, these forms are good. These structures are good. But there is a little bit of room to play within them and then as we were writing this record, I think we made some conscious efforts to make sure that there would be even further room inside the context of what we're doing to expand it in the future, as we get tired of playing songs the same way.
We've been making efforts on this tour -- this is first tour since the record's been done -- to test our mettle when it comes to opening up the technical floodgates of letting ourselves apply new ideas. Maybe we can slow down the song or maybe we can take a section, allow it to breathe a little bit more and not just play the record. I think that shit gets really boring to me.
I think it’s especially prevalent in metal, where things tend to be written in a way that doesn't allow much for deviation. And our older records certainly feel a whole lot more locked into specifics, so I think for me, having a history -- I've been in the band since 2002 -- it's been nice. It's been really invigorating and inspiring in recent years and especially with this record to approach music in such a way that we don't need to totally get caught up on specifics.
Thinking about generalities, the record seems more direct and less progressive than recent albums you’ve done, even if the first two songs that you released from it don't fit that thesis at all.
Thomson: There's definitely more space in some ways.
Baizley: I think in the audible sense of the word, we've let the music be a little bit rawer, more raw in some ways. But I can say, two feet on the ground, hand on the book; this is the most difficult record that I've had to play. It's just not difficult in a showy way.
Thomson: Yes, it's not shreddy.
Baizley: There are extremely convoluted and sophisticated things that we're doing that are completely unnecessary. In the song “Cold Blooded Angels” which starts off really mellow and has that build and then stops. We spend most of the work on that song developing the first half, because it felt like more powerful. To me it felt like it was the more powerful half. It's just like a nice, pocketed groove and core progression. And then Gina and myself and my daughter sing. Then the second half of that song, it is the same chord progression, or a very similar chord progression of the first half. It goes through three different treatments, all of which sound incredibly different.
What Gina and I do a lot on this record is where traditionally if I'm playing an open chord, somebody could play a power chord or an octave or something. What we're doing is if I'm playing root note, it's not the base note, it's the higher note. And then I'm playing some harmony off of that root as the note that sounds like it's the root. And then Gina's playing the two notes that I should be playing with those. But she's playing them backwards too. So we're always playing chords but we've always split it up in a way -- it's almost stupid the way we did it. It doesn't really make any sense, other than it sounds a little odder, because we're not playing chords you're familiar with.
Thompson: It's like a long journey through inversions.
Baizley: Yeah. Everything gets inverted and then on top of that, in every song we've hidden another song.
Thomson: Also for example in “Tourniquet,” which has a pretty head-bobbing, half-time groove, the kick happens every fifth sixteenth note. So, the rhythm repeats every five beats.
Baizley: But the rest of us are playing it in four.
Thomson: And it's totally hidden. It's kind of proggy, and it's hidden.
Baizley: There are so many rhythmic tricks and melodic tricks and harmonic tricks. The only thing that didn't get the hyper-chaotic psychotic overload inversion treatment was vocals. It felt like the music had so much of that so now, as a vocalist I'm just going to try to make the song great. I just want to make a better song than I thought I was capable of writing, but over top of such weird, counterintuitive stuff. When you shit it out, you mix it and master it and everything, there's just a little oddness that you'll pick up. And it may even sound like it's raw. But what it is, it's a very weird neighbor to get songs to the right way. Very, very weird.
I get the feeling that another thing that you were cognizant of was the album pacing. You got all of these short interludes, a couple of two minute long instrumental things -- it all allows the whole record to flow together.
Baizley: We did it as well as we could with Blue Record. We would reprise songs, we would change the key of songs a little bit and play it backwards and hide it… We had a theme on Blue [Record] that was consistent across it and we had a little bit of theme with Yellow & Green that kind of gets reprised a few times.
But this is a system of semi-familiar melodies being played across the course of a 17-track record repeatedly. Almost incessantly, we're repeating melodic devices and harmonic devices. What might be the hook of a vocal in this song might be the bass solo in this song and then might be a backwards piano part in something else. Things happen repetitively a lot.
How do you do that when you're coming into it with a completely blank canvas, by your own estimation? That seems like it is exceedingly difficult to throw 52 cards in the air and have them land suited.
Thomson: It wasn’t totally blank.
Baizley: It wasn't totally blank, but we definitely threw 52 cards in the air.
And yet you managed to have the whole record kind of fall in line with a theme. Some people spend years trying to develop a theme for a record before they write any of the music for it.
Thomson: We worked really hard the second visit, the second two week visit in the studio, because we only had a couple of riffs, really, and a couple of beats. So that was a lot of work. I don't mean it was a bad experience; it was a great experience. But we would wake up and work and go to sleep for two weeks, just discuss and record. That's how you get to finish an album when you are not entirely sure…
Baizley: We would do the over dubs in between set, the proper sessions at my home. We did a lot of vocals there. This was a record that was worked on pretty constantly for quite an extended period of time always with the caution or fear in the back of my mind that, at a certain point, we've overworked it and it'll start losing flavor. So as far as I'm able to, I was just trying to pay attention to that, the idea of overembellishing something to the point where you lost the plot. As soon as I felt like I was on the precipice of that, then it was done.
You mentioned that lyrics came after you wrote the music. When does the album cover kick in? Because you of course, doing the album cover art.
Baizley: The artwork came around the time the record was wrapping up and being mastered. It took so much emotional energy and creative energy and physical time to create the music, to the level where I was happy with it, that when we had the music, I was like, "Shit, okay.” I was back-burning the lyrics for a while; that was such a task and I just didn't stop until I was really happy with it. Then when I was, now I [have] to do the record cover. Then I [had] to do layout and packaging. The work never stops with me.
When Purple came out, there were a lot of people who felt Baroness wasn’t a metal band anymore, even people who still liked the band. Would you say Baroness is still a metal band at this point?
Baizley: If I'm being objective and going song by song, album by album and looking at the things that we actually do in the band, I can't say we're not metal, but neither can I say that we're a metal band in the traditional sense of the word.
We're all metal fans and we're all punk fans. We came up in punk, hardcore, metal; that's the scene that we came from. We use the elements of that music that we love. We celebrate aspects of metal that are suitable for us that we want to hear. But I would be lying if I said I thought we were ever writing the style of music. I think it's hard, it's as hard for me to say we're a metal band as it is for me to say we're a rock band.
But that's just me. I'm supposed to be in a position where I don't want genre tags and then I'll follow that by saying, I should have been careful what I asked for. Because when you’re driving in your own lane, some of the times it's difficult. It can be isolated and lonely. But we identify with those scenes in a broad sense and we feel as at home on stage at Hellfest or Graspop or you name it metal fest, as we do on some of the mainstream or more Indie rock [shows].
It's as fun for us to play in a dingy club to a hundred people as it is to hop on stage to play in front of 2,000 people. We want variety. We seek variety. We seek adventure. We like to cast a wide net. And I think that makes it a little difficult for anybody who's very genre specific to totally identify with us because there are too many curve balls.
This is the second album on your own. In theory you worked out the kinks of doing it yourself, you spent the most time in between releases touring and preparing for this. It seems like a pivotal record in terms of the popularity of Baroness. How psyched are you about that happening, and what would it even look like?
Baizley: I will say that the business of what I do is important to me because I have people that depend on it. I've got a family. We've got families. We've got a crew. We've got a team and everybody puts their best effort into helping a group of weirdos like us reach an audience. But I've never ever -- I will never write a song or mix an album or make any decisions based on the salability of that record. As you said before, it's about our trajectory as a band with a vision and that doesn't include doing things that specifically meet the end goal of having a larger audience. Not in that way.
What we would like [is] more the philosophy is that we're going to give you a 100% of everything that we have, every night of the week, on every record. We're going to keep our arms wide open and anybody that will have us, we're here. We don't want to limit the scope of what we do.
Balancing those similar ideas I guess can be tricky. But we are more successful when we are pushing more buttons and reacting a little bit harder to the status quo or what's going on around us, which means we have to make risks.
I think this record was almost a return filled with risks that were absolutely, 100% worth taking. I think that we're incredibly hungry now to take this out with a new stable line up and just run ourselves ragged. Let's see what we can do with this. Because I think there's something in there. I think there's material on this record that can really reach across the aisle and I mean both ways. We can reach from the hard rock world back into places where we've been in the past and then from where we've been in past toward the future.
I think it's a very exciting record because I don't know what else sounds like it and I'm really proud to say that. I don't think I've been able to say that as firmly about other records.
Yellow & Green, a little bit, but I just thought that it was going to piss everybody off. I don't know what this one is going to do. It's kind of mysterious to me. I know that we couldn't ever make it again the same way. And we didn't skimp on anything. We gave everything to this album. Everything we had. A scary amount of everything we had.
Gold & Grey releases Friday via Abraxan Hymns -- pre-orders available here, and you can stream the whole album now via NPR. After some intimate acoustic performances at independent record stores in the American northeast, Baroness will tour South America in June and America in July and August before hitting Europe with Volbeat through the end of November.