Hailing from Savannah, Georgia, the southern/sludge/alternative/progressive band Baroness return to New Zealand's shores for one night only on December 5th at Auckland's 'The Studio'.
Known for their "colourful" album covers/titles just as much as they are for their distinctive sound - the band has survived not only the rigours of the music industry, but also a horrific bus accident in 2012 which left the future of the band uncertain. Last week I caught up with frontman John Baizley to discuss music, art, touring, recovery, along with the upcoming show.
Hi John, thanks for taking the time to talk about the upcoming tour/show you're putting on down here.
No worries, happy to do it.
So Baroness - you guys have been together for quite some time now, how longs it's been now?
It was some point in 2002 that the idea was thrown about, that we were in a band, but I think we started touring formally around the end of 2003, so it's been a good little stretch so far.
And how did you guys meet... how did you form? Friends? Other bands?
We're currently in our... I dunno, our 6th or 7th version, which alters in small increments over time, but the first 3 or 4 iterations of the band saw us with members who all grew up in the same rural community in South Western Virginia, so we didn't come from a city that had bands. There wasn't a great wealth of people, and we weren't in a situation where playing music was seen as an option for us, it just kinda happened that there was a bunch of us from this small town, slightly different ages, but we all knew other, went to school together and had siblings that were friendly with one another, you know - a very small community. I'm sure you know what that's like; and at some point I moved down to Savannah Georgia which is about 8 hours away from where we were from, and it just so happened that some of the guys moved down, some were already there, and at some point we realised we were playing music a little bit more seriously.
But we didn't know what was going to happen, it was like "we wanna tour, we wanna see the world, see if we can get out of the city, the state" and a couple of years in we'd been touring, we'd started to see the tours go international, but we were always on this foundation that it was a DIY thing. More of a 'get in the van, book your own tours, print your own merch' thing for as long as we could maintain that.. and eventually we grew, got a record contract to an indie metal label, at some point we needed an agent so we hired an agent. But we kept the idea of the band rather familiar in that, we weren't really hiring people to do a job, you had to love doing it because there wasn't, and there never will be great financial success with it. It's just gotta be fun and even tho the lineups changed, certain characteristics of the band have grown and changed. We try to keep that original mentality as much as we can, and I think it's something that's been really important to us and it's been a defining character of this band for 10-15 years.
Being the primary vocalist/guitarist - the songs are all kinda similar, you've stuck to the same kind of sound/genre...
Yeah... there's certain benchmarks or hallmarks of the sound that are always present, there are certain attributes that will probably never change, like we rely heavily on two guitars so there's typically the interplay of two guitar instruments in a song.
One thing - it IS guitar based music and I know in recent years that's fallen way out of fashion with what's happening in the pop world, even to a certain extent in the indie world, but it's always been present in our band and that's something that will always be a chief characteristic. And along with that comes the musical sensibilities that I have, and that the other guys have. Again - even tho we've changed lineup over the years we play with people who want to get into that sound, who have some understanding of it and add to what's already there - it's something we think can grow but always have some element of the familiar happening.
I've always liked the kinda shouty vocals, but also the harmonies/chanty choruses with a good kick/hook which kinda sets guys apart from some other bands in the... I guess sludge or.. southern rock... how do you define yourselves?
I don't know that either one of those descriptions is accurate, not because I think we're different but because I think those styles are something specific to each one and I don't think it does justice to the bands that identify like that to say that we're apart of that. We may reference it from time to time but it's hard to say that we're just a southern rock band - it's kinda hard even after all these years to define what we are because it doesn't seem like we're a metal band, but it doesn't seem like calling us a rock band really gets it.
You're... Baroness. Throughout the lineup changes and production values, you've kept that sound which unique to you guys.
Yeah, I guess that's the important thing. When I got into music (and it's true for a lot of the guys) we got into punk, we got into the DIY scene and we liked the attitude there, and the mindset that you could be... that self-expression was critical/key, and that doing something that was true to yourself musically was sort of the first step.
But then once you're in any scene for awhile you realise that there's some conformity that's going on, so there's elements of that scene that after awhile it got very limiting to us, so we didn't adhere to the rules, we had our own thing and we knew what it was - in that if we played a song that didn't feel right - we knew that we were doing something wrong so we just stopped that. And that's always been the process for us - if it feels right you keep going with it, if it feels wrong, your gut tells you, you know in your heart your not doing something that's exactly right and you maybe take the idea and repurpose it at some point in the future. But as long as we're happy, as long as we're writing music we wanna hear then that's what makes our songs ours.
Along with being the frontman with guitars and vocals, you're also the artist behind the album covers, did you get into music or painting first? Or was it a combination of the two art forms that grew as an expression of yourself concurrently?
That's probably the better way to look at it, the two ways that I express myself: visually and through music they seem to inform one another. There was a time when I tried to make a clear distinction between the two things because I thought it may lead to confusion (for myself), I learned over time that it was even more confusing to try and make that distinction and try to compartmentalise it - you know, keep the two identities separate from one another than it was to just embrace the fact that they were two symptoms of the same disease. It's just fortunate that those two things happen to go hand in hand with the way this band operates - if there was some other passion that I had, that was a self-expression that didn't lend itself to music I probably wouldn't be going for it.
When you make visual art and you write music you don't have to worry about who your hiring to do your album cover, you know that's always going to be a thing, and that'll always be something - I've chosen to see the two really as coming from the same place.
With that in mind, when you're approaching the album art, is the music informing the art, or are the ideas formed when you write?
I know what you're asking, it's "what came first" in the process, and sometimes its hard to say - in some cases what I'm doing visually will inform what I'm doing musically, more often than not however because the band has multiple members and it's not just one person at the wheel it's helpful to have music first, then my lyrics and my visuals respond in some way to the music. Very often, more often that you need a melody for lyrics too, and you need that "song" to illustrate, and an album to create an aesthetic for, but that's not to say that doesn't work the other way around because there have been times we've got the bulk of an album done and I've gotten some visuals done and it looks like to me, through the artwork there may be some other avenue sonically that can be investigated. And then we'll go down that route, but I guess that's just a convoluted way of saying there's no real set way it works - when it's happening you run with it and don't stop till your exhausted because if you do then the idea may escape you and the inspiration may stop.
Then you get the writers block thing. Sometimes when you stop you just lose momentum and you can't really come up with anything for awhile. So if something's happening - be it artistic or musical I just run with it.
Looking at the album art, I notice the colour palette for Purple is purple based, is the album title also infused with the art/songs, are album titles pre-known?
Oh no, I find it's way easier to work on the title once you've got something... to title. It would be difficult to fit an album and everybody's input into the context of a title, so there've been records that we've had the idea for the title in mind long before the albums done. With Purple we'd mostly written the whole thing before I was even comfortable admitting to the other guys I was comfortable with calling it a colour. I thought we were going to do something different but it seemed like this album should fall in line with some of our prior works and have the colour thing going on but I hope it doesn't in the near future because I'd like to move on to different ideas, I dunno, it's curious to me, I'll just let it happen.
So when you're doing album art for non-Baroness, how does that differ in your design process, are you working with the knowing the album or blind?
That's the most obvious difference, I really appreciate getting some recorded stuff first that I can base my stuff off, because the key difference is that I don't need the music. When I'm working with another band on a project they've done, then I'm approaching it simultaneously as an artist and a musician but mostly as a fan. I've chosen very staunchly to only work with bands/artists that I appreciate and respect or admire in some way, so that when I'm working I'm putting as much of myself into it that from as many angles as I can, and it's kinda easy to just be an artist and make something look good or to approach some piece of music and say "this is the thing I know will work, I'll just go with this".
But it's much more difficult to get into the finer details, and if I'm working on something with the artist for their project that I'm listening to as a fan then I have to start asking much bolder questions, or much different questions about the piece, and the work itself than I would than if it's a personal thing I did: it's more like self-reflection than when it's with someone else. There are the external factors and a lot of times I feel I'm guessing, reimagining, reinterpreting things, conclusions that I come to - with Baroness it's just different because it's so personal that I have to mask what I'm doing because I think it's too obvious.
Right, so the last question - we've spoken about lineup changes a few times and I've been wondering how to touch on this, the bus crash, recovery, the continuation of the band. I remember a statement you made about getting back on the road, continuing the shows, honouring commitments as a testament, and respect to honour the band members, the band, the fans, and that was something that touched me... that you did that as part your recovery - to get back on the road and move on...
Yeah, of course, the effects are pretty deep and there's some complexity to it that we can't cover in a short discussion - but the idea that you would undergo something and let that thing which could easily turn from a physical thing to a mental thing, essentially from a real physical handicap to something mentally handicapping was really strong in my mind.
Personally there's no better way to address what's obviously going on than to move past it, and through it, and the best way of moving through the fears you'd have after going through an accident like that on tour would be: tour - and the best way to prove some of the points we were touching on musically with our record which had to do with moving thru very difficult things in life would be to actually, physically move thru those things. And if I was setting an example for someone else then I would be making leaps and bounds personally, it's maybe a bit of backwards logic but it did help me, like I had to deal with it very realistically and the best way for me to deal with what I'd gone through was to imbue that into what we were already doing - make that part of our tour and part of our music. In a way that was healthy and not me running from the grim realities and things like that - it was more facing up to harsh realities and just moving past them, here's something: Confront it, Address it. That's the best way to get thru it.
Well thanks for taking the time to talk to us...
Monday December 5th: The Studio, Auckland
Tickets via Ticketmaster