Interview: John Baizley (Baroness)
Contrary to the stereotype of metallers as slackers, Baroness is a band of over-achievers. Vocalist/guitarist/resident artwork designer John Baizley typifies this with his music, graphic design work, and art exhibitions. (His work is currently on display at the Metropolis Gallery in Lancaster, PA). As if the release of a new album, Blue Record (Relapse, 2009), weren't enough, Baizley increased his workload by recently becoming a parent. He took time out of his busy schedule to discuss fatherhood, his new record, and avoiding idle hands.
- Casey Boland
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How has being a father been?
First and foremost it's been awesome. I've got no regrets there. It's been an amazing couple of months. It's just compounded a number of other things that I had set in motion before we found out about the pregnancy, so I've got a whole lot of things [happening]. She was born, and then the record came out. Then we did our first couple shows. Then I've got a solo exhibition for my artwork in Pennsylvania this week, and then a week after that we leave for a full nationwide tour. It's a whole lot of stuff.
Has becoming a father going to affect the way Baroness is run?
Yeah, I think any major change to anybody personally in our band affects the way we do things. That's just because we all care about each other. This band is more like a family than anything. Things dynamically change when a literal family member is brought into the fold, but even when smaller things are happening with our band it changes things. The band's not a business before its other things. It's everything else before it's a business.
Was it seamless bringing in a brand new member as far as maintaining the family vibe?
Yes, and here's why: everybody that's ever been in this band grew up pretty much on the same block in a very, very small town. We all knew each other growing up. Our current guitar player [Pete Adams] is one of my oldest friends in the world. He's the guy I mutually discovered heavy music with. He and I cut our teeth on the Melvins, Jesus Lizard, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, and bands like that when we were impressionable little kids, and we've had that connection for almost 20 years now.
So when the guitarist vacancy came up, it wasn't an issue of holding auditions.
Yeah, it was a phone call. He thought about it for a couple of days, called me back, and said, "Let's do this." He was meant to be in Baroness when we originally started. But he had other things going on in his life at that point that prevented him from doing that. So now he's basically where he, or at least in a romantic side of my brain, where I always thought he was meant to be. When he joined, we didn't have to school anybody on how to play with this band. It was just, "Welcome in, here you are and let's do it."
Was he involved with the writing of the Blue Record?
Yeah, absolutely. He and I holed up in my studio and worked on guitars and vocals for months before the record really started to come together.
Was the album fully written when you went into the studio?
The way we do recordings is we write 85% of the music. When we go into the studio, we take those songs, and we give the other 15% over to intuitive response and reaction and experimentation, so it's not all totally calculated. We like to let happenstance happen. I think if we were to pre-plan everything, our recordings would come out a little drier than they do. We always try to focus on getting more of a live feel to our songs, and it helps to have slightly incomplete material, because something will happen and it will be on tape. We'll listen to it and we probably couldn't recreate it if we wanted to, but it's there just like it would be in a live set.
Did [producer/engineer] John Congleton bring a lot to the table?
Absolutely. We've always worked with Phil Cope from Kylesa at the Jam Room Studios in Columbia, SC, and we had about as good a relationship with those guys as you can have with your studio engineers, meaning, they knew our material intimately, they knew our personalities. We were very comfortable in that studio. And that was almost problematic because as we're writing the record, we're going, "We know what this is going to sound like. There's no surprises. There's no risk to it. It's time for us to surprise ourselves and move forward and take a few calculated risks." That's where John Congleton came in. He's a guy that has very little experience in the sub-sub-sub genre world of whatever it is we're playing, and he's not recorded the bands we're friends with. He had no rulebook to adhere to during the recording. We got a surprise. We got challenged.
Why did you decide to go with him?
All the records I listened to that he recorded — and I listened to about all of them — had this very similar sort of feel to them. There was one record in particular that sealed the deal, and that was that Black Mountain record In the Future. It just became the CD that was ever present on my playlist on tour. We all came together with that record. So I looked into it and found this guy John Congleton. It turned out he had recorded the Explosions in the Sky stuff; he recorded a number of records that I had heard. Maybe I wasn't so much a fan of the band, but I was a huge fan of the production. It was odd. It didn't really make all that much sense to me. I thought, this is going to be a little bit of work for us. This is going to be a creative challenge for us. This is something that we need. We need to really do something that's not so obvious and risk-free.
So you're satisfied with the results?
I'm completely satisfied with the results. We were surprised and intrigued by the outcome, and ultimately incredibly proud of it. For me, it was the only way we should have sounded with that record.
It's very much an album in the classic sense, where you have an introduction, a middle, and an end. Do you think that Baroness will always be a band about making albums?
Yeah, I am a student of the album as an art form. All of my favorite music happens to be albums, or albums in quotation marks. There's really no other option for us. When I'm writing, it has to attempt to reflect those records that had such an incredible impact on me, any and all of which are complete and total records from start to finish. Not a collection of singles, but records. Every song is intrinsically important to the overall feel of the record.
Is there any significance to the "Bullhead"? There are a couple of references to it, and there is a repeating riff in those songs.
It's multifaceted. The thing is, we've always been a southern band. By a southern band, I mean we are a product of the geography in which we grew up. I don't mean it's all about Bud Light and giant American flags off the back of a pickup truck. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I mean is that we grew up in a landscape that was distinctly southern and impressed itself upon us. We grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and now we're based out of Georgia. Everywhere we have lived is full of significant history and cult
ure. Not always the brightest pinnacle of American culture and American history, but certainly the landscape is beautiful, and there is a deep-rooted history.
Part of that history is that we all spent significant parts of our lives outdoors and engaged in the outdoor sort of sport. Bullhead is a type of catfish. It's a loose icon for our area. It's also sort of a nod towards some of the very rich-sounding musical traditions in the south, a lot of the Delta blues where there's similar natural references in the music titles or the song lyrics. One of the most important songs to my upbringing as a musician was an old traditional song called "The Catfish Blues." It ties in with the chromatic titling of the record. And there's a personal side to it that I choose not to disclose. Suffice it to say, it's not random. It actually isn't a Melvins reference.
It sounds like the south or southern music is an integral part of your music.
I can't say I grew up around Delta blues. So much of the direct Appalachian influence on our music was something I worked against as a young man. I hated bluegrass. That was regional music for me, a lot of the quote-unquote old-timey music. You come from a place that's so loaded, and you carry the skeletons with you where you go. Maybe it's just a predilection for a natural minor-key soulfulness or something. But it's there and I've spent 15 years fighting it, and now I'm just sort of investigating it.
Baroness comes from more of the hardcore DIY background. Is it bizarre now being associated with the larger metal scene and playing with those bands and in larger venues?
Yeah, it's totally bizarre (laughs). But it's fun. It's a great adventure that we've been on. We've gotten to do so many things that were dreams during our childhood. I can't tell you how many times we're on tour and we're just kind of like, "Oh my God, this is happening right now." This is something we never could have guessed at.
Do you guys still all have your day jobs?
We all work full-time when we're not on tour. It's not even necessarily because all of us have to. We just want to. That's what we do. We're a working band, but we're also working people. There are only two jobs that members of Baroness have outside of music. Half of us are carpenters, and half of us are artists. It's kind of funny that way. But we're equally passionate on either side of it.
Between music and your design work, does each one occupy equal amount of your time at this point?
Almost equivalent, in fact. If I'm on tour, I'm playing music. If I'm off tour, I'm writing music and making art. That's year round, every day of the week, and there's no such thing as a Saturday or Sunday for me. I don't ever want to be off the clock, and that goes for the rest of us. We all love what we do. We'll never sit there and rest on our laurels for even a moment. It's just beside the point.
All of you like being busy?
We love being busy.