Baroness: Why Survival Is Simply Not Enough
Even to his most ardent fans, Baroness bandleader John Dyer Baizley is a riddle wrapped in an enigma tied up in guitar leads and cocooned inside a ball of glorious fuzz. There is beauty in mystery, he understands, and unlimited meaning in the abstract.
As of late, however, he’s learning the value of opening up.
Speaking with stamina and singular focus, there’s a tirelessness to his train of thought. Words flow quickly and candidly, delivered in the tense rhythm of a thinker always prepared to spring from one idea to the next. Details are drawn with precision. Bigger pictures must be extracted from the narrative tangle of a busy life well lived. He treads, occasionally, on the line between exhaustive and exhausting, but there’s exhilaration in keeping up.
Discourse, he explains, is a way to process the darkness brewing within; conversation is a catharsis. And there is much to address. Customarily, we check how much time he’s set aside for our interview. He flashes a self-aware smile.
“I want to make sure you get everything you need…”
The story of Baroness’ fifth LP Gold & Grey, he stresses, is rich and deep: one that needs to be told.
Twelve years and four albums into Baroness’ ‘colour’ era, he teases that those are the shades of fire and ash, heralding a “burning down of the house” and radical rebirth. Really, though, the title is a refraction. With five of the six colours of the traditional artist’s wheel already exhausted – Red, Blue, Purple, Yellow & Green – he would need to either sign off with an artistic interpretation of orange (Prison jumpsuits? Wotsits? Donald Trump?) or get creative. He found requisite inspiration inside: the ever-shifting spectrum of human experience.
“We love to paint pictures of the world in black and white, where people and experiences are altogether good or altogether bad. I don’t believe that. Life is this far more complicated, difficult thing: neither gold, nor grey; nor black, nor white. It’s not about those precious, shining, eye-catching, valuable moments, or the dull, drab, melancholic ones. This album represents that space in-between.”
If that sounds somewhat purgatorial, you’re on the right track.
Just before 11am on August 15, 2012, John’s journey almost plummeted into the dark nothingness of non-existence. Four weeks on from the release of audacious double-album Yellow & Green, between shows in Bristol and Southampton, the band’s tour bus brakes gave out on a notorious incline in Monkton Combe, just outside Bath. Pummelling through the safety barrier, they plunged 30 feet off a viaduct into the woodland below.
Opening his eyes against the blood and shattered glass of the windscreen, John knew only the painful elation of escape. A badly broken leg, and an arm shattered into seven “free-floating” segments – in which spurs of bone were piercing the skin – necessitated eight-hour surgery and the insertion of two titanium plates, 20 screws and almost half a metre of wire to reset. One 15-inch incision took 50 staples to hold closed. Weeks of rehabilitation would follow. The light of survival, initially, was overwhelming.
Almost seven years down the line, chronic pain has taken its place, haunting every waking moment. The scales of grievance and gratitude have inexorably tipped.
“For a couple of years,” John sighs, “it felt like everyone I met said to me, ‘Oh man, you’re so lucky to have survived. You’re so lucky to have been left with the facility to keep playing music.’ That was helpful, initially.” As the awful novelty of his injuries subsided, however, and those outside his personal world of pain moved on, anxiety, uncertainty and simple depression began to gnaw out a void.
“You get tired of those [platitudes],” he shrugs, lifting an arm whose previous strength has been supplanted by agony. “They’re repetitive statements, and their effect diminishes over time. [Conversely], there’s not a second that I’m not aware of my injuries. At a point, it’s not enough to be thankful for how fortunate I was in my misfortune.”
If pain is mandatory, suffering is a choice. 2015’s Purple – the colour of bruising – was a compelling rationalisation in the accident’s immediate aftermath. As the initial trauma has faded and the painful new reality has taken root, Gold & Grey has become the engine to a quest for something more. Sharing this problem won’t halve it, but every empathetic nod is a personal reinforcement.
“I’m determined to take these difficulties and, through the filter of my music and my artwork, make the worst moments of my life valuable in some way, shape or form.”
A glimmer of hope spills in.
“I’m trying to find the gold in all that grey.”
In the darkened cool of his basement studio on this balmy spring afternoon, John is still searching. Huddled over a mixing desk, he fiddles with “bootleg” recordings while we talk – each of the 26 dates of Baroness’ U.S. co-headline tour with Californian post-metallers Deafheaven that concluded in New York in April captured for posterity. He works with a restless urgency, multitasking mentally as well as physically, prone to consulting the dates and details in a catalogue of diaries and countless demos for narrative precision. Labour, he gestures, is another form of expression.
Sitting at the base of a three-storey residence on the suburban side of Philadelphia’s city limits, this station is the foundation of what feels only slightly less a creative workspace than a family home. The property is shared with John’s wife (his toughest, longest-standing critic), their nine-year-old daughter, and the family pet/John’s “best friend” Frankie: part Border Collie, part Jack Russell, all action. “He’s a mutt,” the singer laughs with wholehearted affection, “but he’s beautiful…”
Up on the second floor, the brightly-lit windows and expansive floor space of what was surely intended as the master bedroom has been handed over as a studio for his exquisite visual art. Room is afforded, casually, to Abraxan Hymns, the record label set up following Baroness’ 2015 departure from Relapse (“Any success would be ours,” John reflects on an ever-increasing appetite for challenge and control, “as would any failure. I knew it was going to be harder. That’s what I needed”). Down here, the floor is a tangle of wires, recording and production equipment.
The habitat is a hub at the heart of John’s personal and professional life. Within a few short steps he can complete a recording, grab a bite to eat, add another touch to one of his many ongoing graphic projects and relax in the outside air. If mood dictates, space for jogging and live music (“On a good week I’ll catch maybe six shows; a bad one it’ll be two or three…”) are just a little farther down the street. In finding a pathway through the pain, he explains, it has been as critical to have loved ones close to hand as it has been to have tools of invention permanently accessible.
“It’s all my family have ever really known: this chaotic, frantic, anxiety-ridden person who tours half the year and huddles behind an easel or a desk the other,” he laughs when we query his wife and daughter’s take on an increasingly overlapped work/life divide. “They support what I do. My music has always represented something of a narrative of my life. Over the years, it’s become so fundamentally linked to my everyday that there aren’t boundaries anymore, between who I am as a visual artist, a musician and a human being.”
Perhaps homework is habitual: an urbanised echo of early years spent toiling around horses, dogs, cats, guinea hens, sheep, donkeys, geese and rams (a proposed alpaca, unfortunately, never materialised) on his mother’s farm in Southwest Virginia? “No-one ever really questioned working hard,” he nods of an agricultural upbringing shared with enough ex-members for it to be ingrained in Baroness’ DNA, “because everyone around us was working hard.”
That membership might’ve changed over the years, but the working hours have not. At any one time, Baroness’ other members may be staying over, along with any number of friends and collaborators passing through. “I’ve always wanted the band to feel like family as much as possible,” he grins. “My living space is a direct reflection of that.”
Since 2013, renowned jazz-trained bassist/keyboardist Nick Jost and percussionist Sebastian Thomson of Maryland post-rockers Trans Am – both based in New York – have become regular fixtures of the unconventional household. When long-standing lead guitarist Pete Adams (still Virginia-based, performing with doom-metallers Valkyrie) announced his amicable departure in 2017, fate would lead them to a replacement closer to home.
Aside from music, art, label and family, John’s home doubles as base for distortion-pedal business Philly Fuzz. Gina Gleason (six-stringer for Cirque du Soleil, who’s jammed with Carlos Santana and the Smashing Pumpkins) was one of their earliest customers – and her delivery was headed just a few blocks over. Within 10 seconds of sitting down on a no-strings invitation to jam, John knew the job was hers.
“She’s incredible,” he surmises. “I can’t see each line-up change as a shot across my bow. I have to view them as opportunities. This one was huge. Gina’s arrival was an opportunity to leave behind some of the more common and repetitious practices of the past.”
More than that, the parts of something special were falling into place. John jokes, now, about being the least technically proficient member of Baroness, but there is tangible relish when he describes his bandmates skill in enacting his vision and genuine awe at their own raw flair. When the basement birthing of new music began, striking for the horizon was the only option.
“It’s like being handed the keys of a sports car,” he laughs. “You don’t know where you’re going, but you like the way it moves and it’s fast. So you’re gonna keep going until you run out of gas.”
John’s tank, evidently, runs deep.
“We went down this three-year wormhole,” he continues, of an album process that started in mid-2016 and finished with completion of that artwork this February – every writing, rehearsal and free-flowing jam session fully mic’d-up and distilled down. Looking back, John doesn’t see a moment wasted. “When I was speaking through my instrument, it felt like my bandmates were able to finish my sentences. When you get to that stage, it’s when interesting things begin to happen.”
Stylistically, where 2015’s stunning Purple was a reactionary release – raw pain underwritten and elevated by almost celebratory bombast and OTT decision-making – this needed to be a return to the experimentalism unfolding before the accident. “On that album, we played it safe: big, tight, powerful. Nick and Sebastian didn’t want to be perceived as the new half of Baroness who screwed up the sound. With this record, it feels like we’re picking up where we left off with Yellow & Green. We’ve become confident enough – and competent enough – to make some bolder choices and take some bigger risks.”
If exploration was to be his escape, then it would be unlimited. John made it his mission.
“Boredom and repetition are the death of art, as far as I’m concerned. We needed to do something that we hadn’t done before. I needed to do something I hadn’t heard before.”
Fitting with the admission that he wanted to create a “kaleidoscopic” listening experience, John’s irrepressible discussion of the process is a colourful blur.
Scenes are painted with artisan flair: of Gina and he performing solos back-to-back in the style of Judas Priest’s Glenn Tipton and KK Downing; of witching-hour field recordings to capture insectoid ambience out in the woods; of John’s daughter harmonising vocals on Cold-Blooded Angels with as much feeling as the frontman himself. There is talk of inserting “sneaky prog” into ostensibly accessible tracks. John’s wife is credited shouting encouragement from the top of the stairs for a jam that became album closer Pale Sun. Recounting the construction of a druidic “Amp-henge” in the studio to create the cacophonous close of Tourniquet, he can’t help but laugh.
“It always felt like we were making music for a cult,” the frontman grins, playfully acknowledging the absurdity of the enterprise as strings, glockenspiel, tubular bells, piano, synthesisers made it into the mix. “That cult might’ve just been the four of us, but it didn’t really matter as long as we were drinking the Kool-Aid on the daily. The music was awesome because it was noisy and chaotic. It sounded like Muse doing My Bloody Valentine via [reggae/dub producer] King Tubby. Or [‘60s funk band] The Meters playing Cissy Strut in the style of Elton John.”
Even retreating to the isolation of producer Dave Fridmann’s cabin-in-the-woods Tarbox Road Studios at Cassadaga, upstate New York on Valentine’s Day 2018 for recording proper, unbound invention kept flourishing.
“It’s a remotely located place, six to eight hours from home, off a highway, off a state road, off a dirt road, off another dirt road,” John remembers. “For an audiophile, it’s Heaven on Earth. If I were a spiritual person – and deserving – it’s where I would go when I die. The only barriers we could run into there would be those of our own creativity.”
Lyrics and vocals, particularly, emerged late in the process. “I wanted to release a record and be able to tell people I’m the vocalist in Baroness, without saying I was the guitarist first,” John admits of a desire to challenge himself to understand his oral “instrument” and use it with more dexterity than before. That, in turn, demanded lyrics laced with authentic feeling. When they came, they veered between the abstract and the explicit. There is anguish, as John seethes, ‘I am selfish / I am wrong / I’m scared to be alone / Every aching joint breaking at the bone’ on astonishing album centrepiece I’d Do Anything. And yet, there is defiance, too, with second single Seasons declaring, ‘We fall, we rise, we bend, we break / We burn but we survive.’
When, in their explorations, taboos were found, they were there to be defied. “I considered everything that I wrote as some kind of love song,” he explains of breaking emotional ground – admittedly, rarely with much actual romance – that was previously walled off. “I’m still learning my weaknesses as an artist, and I tackle them through art. A lot of that is just not being embarrassed about the sound of my own voice and allowing myself to address what I’m feeling directly – not having to hide behind walls of noise. I’ve created all these senseless boundaries for me since I was a teenager.”
READ THIS: The 13 most essential sludge records
With equal fearlessness, as recording went to the wire and the creative outpouring reached its crescendo, every attached hardship was embraced: isolation, exhaustion, desperation, pushing oneself to the edge and daring to look over.
“It’s everything I love about making a record,” declares John, as a suggestion of mania shines through. “Sleeping three hours a night for three months, not seeing family, being so overworked and so tired that you can’t separate good sound from bad anymore. Sleeplessness, frustration, anxiety, depression, malnutrition, operating on the edge of insanity – it’s terrifying, but the closer you get to the abyss, the more you find out about yourself. The more unique and idiosyncratic you become, the greater access to that beautiful, intangible, genuine, internal thing you get.
“That’s the place I live. That’s where my heart beats faster. That’s where my ideas come to life.”
The finished article is nothing short of astonishing. A strange, shapeshifting puzzle-box of a record, it is chock-full of hidden melodies, recurrent motifs and sly mirror imagery. Yet it is compellingly coherent. At times the clash of virtuoso musicianship and emotional weight is dizzying. At others, the sound is stripped so far back you feel it in the chills running down your spine. There are tantalising questions in there, and there are gut-wrenching answers. Few of them, however, come easily. For some who have heard it, shock has given way to awe relatively quickly, but John himself confesses it took around 20 listens to fully comprehend what had been done.
“I didn’t choose to be a musician in order to live a risk-free life, safely avoiding bumps and bruises,” he wrote at the start of October 2012, bullish in the aftermath of the band’s devastating bus crash. “I didn’t choose to play music because it seemed like a simple opportunity to make some quick cash. Nor did I ever [assume] that things would get easier as we progressed.”
Unquestionably, now, that attitude is ingrained into his art.
“We can’t really get anywhere without taking risks,” he reaffirms, emboldened by the countless fans who have reached out, inspired by the bloodied but unbowed sentiment. “And if we’re taking risks, let’s take some big ones. If we fall on our ass, let’s do it in a way that we feel like we’ve accomplished something. That’s the risk of becoming more unique and individualistic. If no-one likes that honesty, the audience are effectively stating they don’t like you.”
Hardship breaks some and galvanises others. For John, though, it has been a liberation. When he seizes the day, it seizes him back.
“[This pain] hasn’t broken me yet. It hasn’t broken my spirit. It hasn’t broken my interest. It hasn’t broken my capacity to feel. It hasn’t bent my will towards doing the wrong thing or becoming overly self-destructive. But these scars are deep and indelible. There is a mental side – and one that’s almost spiritual. I wonder if I can hold on another five years? Another 20? Another 25 years? What’s the reality of that brink? That unknown becomes a fear. The only way for me to not feel that every moment of my life is to throw myself into these things that overpower it.”
READ THIS: The 50 best albums from 2009
In that, he owes 10,000 grins of relief to his bandmates. It is a bittersweet mercy, he recognises, that his trauma is not one they share.
“The four of us get together, and we’re able to put energy and life and positivity into these things, even as adversities keep cropping up. They drive me to be a better musician. Even though I’m not 17 anymore, they help me discover each new song with the same enthusiasm and wonder I did as that younger man.”
A fleeting pause.
“I’m only learning these things as I’m saying them to you…” he smiles, underlining the value in freely expressing oneself as our conversation winds to a close. “That’s the exciting thing about doing records. Even where we’ve done our job to discover and expand and adapt, it opens up all these other things.”
All things considered, the desire to see what tomorrow brings is victory in itself. Brilliantly, the songs of Gold & Grey promise so much more: those experimental structures ripe for reinvention in the live arena and the barrier-busting precedent they’ve set daring their writers to grow further, to infinity and beyond.
“I’m excited,” John squints farewell against the 24-carat glow of a new dawn. “I’m psyched. This gives us a blank canvas and almost limitless palette going forward. There are still miles and miles and miles of territory yet to be covered.”
“Nobody thinks this is it. Nobody thinks we’ve finished anything…”
Gold & Grey is out now on Abraxan Hymns.
FEVER 333 frontman Jason Aalon Butler shares his views on the recent protests and action following the death of George Floyd
Featuring Tool, Motörhead, Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein and more…